Book Review: 'A Question of Freedom' by R. Dwayne Betts

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Sunday, September 20, 2009


A Memoir of Survival, Learning, and Coming of Age In Prison

By R. Dwayne Betts

Avery. 240 pp. $23

R. Dwayne Betts was a 16-year-old honor student at Suitland High School when he and a friend used a pistol to rob a man who was sleeping in his car in the parking lot at the Springfield Mall. Then they took his car. The next day, Betts and his buddy used the man's stolen credit card to buy $300 worth of clothes at the Pentagon City Mall. A suspicious clerk tipped off security guards, the cops were called, and the boys were arrested. Betts confessed, and, because he had used a gun to commit the crime, a Virginia judge sentenced him to adult prison; he spent the next eight years there.

A "Question of Freedom" is the story of Betts's time behind bars. Drawn from the journals Betts kept while in prison, the book captures the confused adolescent musings of a boy moving from the simple world of childhood to a complex adult reality, infused with shades of gray. In Betts's case, it was also a literal shift, beginning with the day he committed the crime:

"My world before incarceration was black and white. Suitland, Maryland, the closest thing to the black belt that I'd ever seen. And it wasn't just that there were no white people in my community, it was that as a kid we always saw the white people around us as intruders or people looking to have power. Teachers, firefighters, cops or the white folks we saw on buses and trains who we imagined driving into D.C. from their nice neighborhoods to work. One night at a mall in Springfield, Virginia, changed my world. . . . Brandon and I walked into a mall that literally had more white people in it than I'd ever seen at one time. And we had walked in looking for someone to make a victim."

Betts describes his life prior to prison as being practically devoid of black, adult male role models. Inside prison, for the first time, he meets and talks to many older black men. He also uses the time -- ironically, he relishes his multiple 90-day stints in solitary confinement -- to read voraciously, making his way through the African American literary canon and any other book he can get his hands on from the limited prison libraries. He gets his high school diploma while in prison and eventually scores a job in the prison's law library where he successfully "wrote a habeas" for himself and another prisoner. ("I charged him two packs of tuna fish, a box of Ritz crackers and three soups for the work. Not even five dollars and he got five years of his life back.") He also taught himself Spanish by studying three hours every day.

"It let me into another world. I'd been meeting people from Latin America since I'd been locked up, and there was always a language barrier that kept me from connecting with them. . . . My world for the first six or seven years in prison was drawn along racial lines. These lines were moving as I prepared to go home, and it dawned on me that prison was the most diverse place I'd ever been."

Still, he insists prison did nothing to help him "rehabilitate"; he made these efforts despite the system's every effort to thwart his education and humanity.

Betts is not yet a powerful writer. One gets the sense that over-eager editors and writing workshop teachers pushed this young man toward a book contract before he had a chance to develop his voice, recognize the dramatic power of dialogue or master the basics of narrative storytelling. And his life story -- an African American growing up among the drugs and violence of urban America today -- is brutally common.

But this familiar outline is also what gives the book its disturbing resonance.

Karen Houppert is the author of "Home Fires Burning: Married to the Military -- for Better or Worse."

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