At age 16, Reginald Dwayne Betts was tried as an adult and sentenced to prison. After surviving solitary confinement, he is now a poet, lawyer and award-winning MacArthur “genius” grant recipient. He’s also a man on a mission: in 2020, with a grant from the Mellon Foundation, he founded Freedom Reads, a first-of-its-kind initiative that provides books to those incarcerated via 500-book libraries installed in prison housing units and dormitories.

Betts joined The Culture Show to chat with host Jared Bowen to talk about Freedom Reads, and how listeners can get their favorite books included in prison dormitory libraries across the country. You can listen to the full segment above.

For Betts, his first introduction to the arts was by way of a sports encyclopedia. He recalls, in second grade, reading about basketball legends in a moment that has stuck with him through adulthood.

“If I remember that [former Celtics player Bob] Cousy went to Holy Cross,” he says, “and I haven’t thought about this since second grade, you know that this is where the magic began.”

That experience with reading is part of what drives Freedom Reads for Betts.

“What Freedom Reads is trying to invent that hadn’t really been there before is possibility, which is not to say that possibility didn’t exist in the lives of these men and women that we work with,” he told Bowen. “But you want to create a moment where people start to recognize that something that was always there [like reading], that they hadn’t noticed, matters more than anything.”

That realization came, for Betts, from learning about Cousy. For the people his organization works with in prisons, that moment could come from any number of authors.

Men in jeans and blue shirts sit and read in Dorsey Run Correctional Facility
Freedom Reads provides 500 books and shelving to prisons across the country, including Dorsey Run Correctional Facility in Jessup, Maryland
Gioncarlo Valentine

The Freedom Reads libraries include books such as Toni Morrison’s “Paradise” and Miguel de Cervantes’s “Don Quixote.” Mixing contemporary and classic authors in the libraries “creates these moments of spontaneous joy” that can’t be replicated, Betts says.

He recounted a story of an incarcerated young person noticing “The Odyssey” in the library and excitedly sharing that it’s his favorite book, kickstarting a conversation with a Freedom Reads team member about Homer.

“What’s going on is these kids are experiencing a child and an adult having shared joy over books,” Betts says. “The collection is filled with what you love, what we believe you’ll love, and what we believe will inspire you to have fierce arguments for the rest of your life about whether or not this Shakespeare book should be in [a collection].”

Find out more about Freedom Reads at their website. To suggest a book, Betts says people can email with “The Culture Show” and the book title in the subject line. In the body of the email, contributors should explain why they love the book. “If I’m convinced,” Betts says, “it will go in a library and I will write about why you convinced me to put it in a library.”