Reginald Dwayne Betts

WGL 2021-Dwayne Betts
Courtesy of Mamadi Doumbouya
  • Title
    Founding Director
  • Affiliation
    Million Book Project

A carjacking conviction at age 16 landed Betts a nine-year prison sentence in Virginia. There, he encountered the anthology The Black Poets—someone slipped the book under the door of his cell while he was in solitary confinement. The experience of reading changed his life’s direction. Betts began writing poetry, and after his release he earned both an MFA and a law degree, becoming a published poet, a public defender, and an advocate for criminal-justice reform.

Today Betts is also striving to give other incarcerated people the same opportunity he had for a transformative encounter with literature. In June 2020, in conjunction with the Mellon Foundation and Yale Law School (where he’s pursuing a Ph.D.), Betts launched the Million Book Project. The project aims to build “Freedom Libraries” inside 1,000 prisons and juvenile detention centers, each featuring a curated collection of 500 titles selected for their potential to help “open worlds and change lives.” To date, the project has shipped books to correctional facilities in 42 states. In a nation with some 1.8 million people behind bars, the project’s potential reach and the need for inspiration are equally vast.