Former inmate shares his experiences through poetry

Reginald Swayne Betts, memoirist and teacher, gives a poetry reading at the Storrs Center Co-op Bookstore (Erming Gao/The Daily Campus)

When Reginald Dwayne Betts was 16, he and a friend carjacked a man.

Betts spent more than eight years in prison for it. After his release, he wrote several books about his experience and what he learned, including stories that he shared with an audience of students, professors and guests Wednesday night.

The material Betts read came from two of his works of poetry, “Bastards of the Reagan Era,” and “Shahid Reads His Own Palm” as well as from his memoir “A Question of Freedom: A Memoir of Learning, Survival and Coming of Age in Prison.”

“I want to write with vigorous clarity,” Betts said.

His work was easy to consume and clear, with story of his experiences and struggles moving and true. Betts explored the deep capacity of the human condition and our ability to wade through the experiences we have, what to make of them when they happen and how to reflect on them later on.

“I didn’t understand the poems at first, but once he started talking about himself, his poems became so much clearer in meaning,” said Max Reddy, a third-semester finance major.

Betts’ stories mostly came from his memoir, written after he was released from prison.

“I really liked his memoir and poetry. It really struck me, the contrast between the more lyrical natures of the poem versus the structure of the form of the prose,” said Shannon Hearn, an eighth-semester senior majoring in English with focuses in creative writing and journalism.

Betts’ future was bright after he was released, and he went on to win the 2010 NAACP Image Award for nonfiction. He was also named a 2010 Soros Justice Fellow and in 2011 was awarded a fellowship by Harvard University’s Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study. Betts didn’t stop there either. He received his MFA in poetry from Warren Wilson College and is currently a law student at Yale Law School.

The Co-op’s Storrs Center branch was packed. Not a single seat was empty.

There was silence from the audience after every piece that Betts read. In those moments, people seemed to be in deep modes of reflection. With each piece Betts shared, he cited the experiences that drove him to produce the poem or prose he read. He didn’t hold back any experiences he had in prison, including being in solitary confinement. He explained that his confinement left him yearning to read anything, including trashy romance novels.

Audience members were impressed with Betts’ story and suggested that his telling made the poems and stories he told come to life.

“It’s outside of what I normally read, but I appreciated the intimate sense you can glean from him reading his work. From that and hearing it in tandem with his personal experiences, the work lends itself to being more than just words on a page,” said Matthew Ryan, an eighth-semester senior majoring in English and economics.


Matthew Gilbert is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at matthew.gilbert@uconn.edu.