Friday, 29 April 2011

Ex-prisoner made his own success

There's no shortage of talent in prison. That was a part of the message that convicted-felon-turned-award-winning-writer R. Dwayne Betts gave to juveniles and men at Young Correctional Institution on Tuesday afternoon.
"Part of my story is to suggest that we do get to write our own lives," he said to a group of at least 50 inmates, 12 of whom were juveniles at the prison. His talk was broadcast at all Department of Correction facilities. Betts, originally from Suitland, Md., just outside Washington, was arrested at 16 for a carjacking. He spent more than eight years in prison.
After being released he went on to graduate from Prince George's Community College and the University of Maryland. His memoir, "A Question of Freedom," was released in 2009 and details his life in prison, how he dealt with an absentee father and his quest to put his life back together after being released. It won the 2010 NAACP Image Award for literature debut. His second book, "Shahid Reads His Own Palm," a book of poetry, won the Beatrice Hawley Award.
Chief Judge for Family Court Chandlee Johnson Kuhn initially reached out to Betts.
"Two years ago I went to a conference and I read Mr. Betts' book and at two o'clock in the morning I couldn't sleep," Kuhn said.
She said she couldn't sleep because a young man the same age as Betts was brought to her courtroom and stayed in Family Court, where Betts didn't get a chance to be tried because of Virginia law.
"I know that if he were in my court, he would have stayed there," she said.
Kuhn said she wrote Betts a letter, and they corresponded. She eventually asked him to come speak to youth in Delaware. Today he will head to the Glen Mills Schools in Pennsylvania to speak to troubled youth there.
Betts said he didn't initially set out to return to prisons to speak, but when he does visit, he doesn't like that the majority of the faces he sees are black boys.
For the same reason, he continues to encourage young inmates while speaking about his experiences.
"I never had a conversation with a black man over 30 until I had handcuffs on me," he said.
In prison, people never came to speak to him or other inmates. He never learned about credit, getting employment or navigating the real world once released, so he prepared himself by reading a plethora of books while locked up.
Guards at his prison thought he was trying to commit suicide when he taught himself how to tie a necktie with a belt.
"For them it was more believable that I would want to commit suicide than teach myself how to tie a tie," he said.
But Betts was preparing himself for life after jail, he said.
"Get some skills that speak higher than your felonies and your crimes," he encouraged the inmates.
Contact Ira Porter at 324-2890 or
Writer reminds Delaware inmates of their potential

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