At 14 years old, Reginald Dwayne Betts was an ordinary high school student who couldn’t fathom committing a crime.
At 16 years old, he carjacked a man and was charged for three different felonies as an adult.
“Two years will change your life,” he said. “In two years, crime went from unfathomable to regular. Not right, but regular.”
Betts reflected on his time in prison and read excerpts from his novel “A Question of Freedom: A memoir of Learning, Survival, and Coming of Age in Prison” in DPAC on Thursday evening, after holding a poetry reading in the Heineman Ecumenical center.
He said the “super-predator” and “menace to society” rhetoric is damaging, and that there needs to be a change in the way criminals are perceived.
“We’ve gotten rid of those words,” he said, “but we haven’t gotten rid of those policies that suggest that those things are true.
“I committed a violent crime,” he said. “I stood in front of a judge at 16 years old facing a life sentence, and when I stood there in court, nobody in that courtroom would have imagined that I would graduate from college, that I would be the commencement speaker when I graduated, or publish books. That I would go to the best law school in the world. Nobody in that courtroom believed that.”
He asked, “How do you create a world in which we believe more in the possibility of people who have committed crimes and made mistake, more than we believe in the need to doom them?”
According to Betts, 70 percent of the U.S. prison population is charged with violent crimes. For the mass incarceration issue to be addressed, violent offenders need to be addressed as well.
He said society needs to address how criminal culpability is perceived and what it means.
“It’s not a philosophical question. It feels like a philosophical question when you don’t know somebody who has been in prison for a long period time,” he said. “But it can easily become one of the things that dominates your life.”
He said reducing the prison population starts with parole boards. Many parole officers have “no real understanding” of crime, punishment and rehabilitative services offered in prison.
Additionally, there are many states that still don’t have parole programs entirely, according to Betts.
“That’s one step … to safely release people from prison with the expectation that they will be successful,” he said.
Another issue that ties into mass incarceration is the prisons themselves, said Betts. “What do we expect from prisons? What is the architecture of prisons? How does that influence what happens inside of prison?” he asked.
He said the most harrowing experience of prison is moving from one cell to another.
He recounted moving from solitary confinement to a new cell, and meeting his new cellmate. Coincidentally, it had been a man he had overhead earlier talking about how to create a knife out of the cover of an intercom.
While he was “lucky” and ended up getting along with his cellmate, he said that man went on to stab a guard. Had Dwayne Betts still been his cellmate, he would have been implicated for knowing he had a knife.
“And then, suddenly, I’m an accomplice in an attempted murder and I’m not standing in front of you anymore all because they put me in a cell with this person.”
He said society needs to consider how prisons are managed, and the kind of influence cellmates may have on one another.
There were many other minors in “adult” prison with him during his time there, according to Betts.
He has advocated for in a change in the policies that allow for minors to be incarcerated along side adults, and said,” I just don’t think you should be in prison at 16 with grown men.”
While some states have risen the age from 16 to 18, he said, “It is still a huge challenge” for the United States.
He added the main reason why this problem persists is because “we haven’t figured out how we approach guilt. We haven’t figured out how to address guilt.”
Since working as a lawyer, Betts said he realized the system is “wretched” because “it makes you think winners or losers.”
He recalled his own sentencing, and said the judge deemed him “not a winner.”
He said he learned that “the system, in some ways, reinforces this notion that there are some people who are worth saving, worth giving a second-change, worth giving opportunities and there are other who are essentially disposable. And that is a dangerous system.”