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Reviews |  The search for beauty in a prison cell


To choose the books, I thought back to the nights I spent in a cell hypnotized by “One Hundred Years of Solitude” by Gabriel García Márquez or disturbed by “Paradise” by Toni Morrison or how “The Black Poets” turned into a poet. I spoke to dozens of others and listened to their memories of the books that remain with them. Of Herman Melville’s story ‘Bartleby, the Scrivener’, one person said, “I’ve read some sad stories and I’ve read a few more, but none are as sad as ‘Bartleby, the Scrivener.’ “Because I’m a sometimes sad lawyer, it made me pick it up and read it over and over and then put it on our shelves.

The people I see when I arrive with the books are mirrors of myself, whether they’re teenagers in Rikers or grizzled men in a Colorado jail, or women who remind me of my mother. just outside Chicago. Some have been incarcerated for all these 17 years that I have been free and many use literature to carve out a place for themselves and for others in this world.

Recently, I walked into Louisiana State Penitentiary with James Washington and Chris Spruill. They had both done time in the prison they called “the Can”. James had learned to work with wood there, learned to love shaping a rough block into something beautiful. Over the past few months, he and Chris have used this experience to build the three bookcases we brought with us. When we entered this damp place, the men greeted them with daps and love. “James, what are you doing in return?” He brought beauty.

At Elayn Hunt Correctional Center in Louisiana, an inmate named James Lavigne told us what this meant to him. “Tell you what, everyone here is reading. But usually what we end up reading feels like urban novels,” he said. “It’s real literature.” On the shelf he found a memoir by Maya Angelou. “I mean obviously this woman has had experiences that the average person doesn’t have,” he said. “She went through things that most of us will never understand. We are able to examine his soul through his work. Amazing.” And then he moved on to Jonathan Lethem’s “Motherless Brooklyn.” “It’s a lot of fun. I’m really impressed with his style. It’s also one of my favorites.

We call them Libraries of Freedom to remind us of the urgency of it all, and we sculpt the shelves into curves to suggest a universe that leans toward justice. I don’t believe that a book alone gives a person wings, but the hope of all this is not a fantasy. The hope is that someone will turn a page, and with the turn, will transform.

Reginald Dwayne Betts is a poet, lawyer and creator of Freedom Reads, an initiative to organize libraries and install them in prisons across the country.

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