A Former Virginia Inmate Recalls the Book That Changed His Life

By R. Dwayne Betts
Sunday, September 20, 2009

Last month, Virginia correctional officials temporarily blocked Quest Institute, a Charlottesville-based nonprofit, from providing books directly to the state's prisoners through its 20-year-old Books Behind Bars program. Officials said the action was taken because banned items -- reportedly, a CD and some paper clips -- were found in books supplied by the group. Prisoner advocates defended the program, arguing that it was an inexpensive way to help thousands of inmates who wish to learn, and last week the ban was rescinded.

Here, a former Virginia inmate describes the moment when, at the right time, the right book found its way into his cell.

When I was 16, I pleaded guilty to carjacking a man in a mall parking lot. In 30 minutes, everything can change; that's what I learned from a wild night with a pistol.

Two years later, in July 1998, I was staring onto an empty tier from a cell in solitary confinement. Already serving a nine-year prison term, I had wound up in the hole, too. This meant I was more than wrong. It also meant that I was the last person many would believe deserved what education an open book could offer.

This wasn't the kind of a place where you would expect to find life-changing inspiration.

The place we called the hole was 3C, a building of cells that housed men in solitary confinement and protective custody. It was parallel to 2C, the general population building, and if you were on the right side of the tier, all that separated the two buildings was a 25-foot gap of grass where only stray cats ever walked. There were no library privileges in the hole -- not for the men who were there because they broke the rules or the men there because they were afraid to be out in the main prison population. Books were for those who hadn't gotten in trouble and who were willing to brave the violence of a cell door opening.

But we had developed a thing called "fishing," a complicated system using shampoo bottles filled with water as hooks and lines fashioned from shredded sheets. We would toss our lines toward the general population and pull back books and whatever else we needed to get through the nights.

Days before my 18th birthday, I stood at the door of my cell, screaming out for a book to whoever was there to hear. But I wasn't on the side of the tier where you could fish; the only books I could get had to be slipped under my door by men I didn't know. These might be books they had fished for themselves or, sometimes, books they had received from organizations that send prisoners books for free.

One afternoon, someone slid in "The Black Poets" by Dudley Randall. A tattered poetry anthology filled with Gwendolyn Brooks and Robert Hayden, Etheridge Knight and Langston Hughes, it wasn't the kind of book that was kept in the prison library. I lived with that book for the next two months, copying out poems longhand onto any scrap of paper I could find. Later, using a hole punch, I turned all that loose paper into a bound notebook that I keep to this day.

Now, 10 years later, every time I walk into a classroom to teach poetry, I remember how one book changed my life. I remember how, when I was more than wrong, there was someone who thought a book could lead to change and got that book into my hands, even if no one else thought I deserved it.

One book, slipped under my cell door by someone I didn't know. One book, donated by an organization that believed that, no matter what, an education can save you.

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