A Poet, with Prison Behind Him, Becomes an Attorney

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Media Outlet: The New Yorker

Reginald Dwayne Betts was profiled in the New Yorker, discussing how the poet and former convict earned his law degree:

Late Friday afternoon, in a small, sleepy, windowless fourth-floor courtroom at the New Haven State Superior Court, an official cried, “Oyez! Oyez! Oyez!,” as Judge Omar Williams arrived from Hartford to conduct the final business of the week. Williams looked out upon two rows of pew-like wooden benches, all of them filled, and informed the public that the court had received word from the state that Reginald Dwayne Betts, age thirty-seven, had been “successfully” approved to practice law in Connecticut. Williams then described the “honor” he felt at “being here today.” Referring to law as “a calling,” the judge said that Betts was “an inspiration.” Betts had trimmed his beard and wore a crisp blue suit over his stocky frame for an event that had the feel of a wedding. He was required to raise his right hand and swear that he’d do nothing dishonest, for personal gain or out of malice. “I do,” Betts said. And with that, the judge asked the gallery to “help me congratulate Attorney Reginald Dwayne Betts!”
Connecticut’s newest lawyer held his license and began to read from it aloud. Then he stopped, looked at his mother, who had come from Maryland, and thanked her, saying, “Last time my mom saw me in court, I was sentenced to nine years in prison. I know nobody expected this then. Least of all me.” He proceeded to identify every witness in the room: his law professors from Yale, his aunt Pandora, his wife and sons. A number of friends were present, including me. (We met a few years ago, through mutual friends in New Haven, and grew close.) “There’s even a prosecutor in the house!” Betts said. As he told us all how he’d “sweated over the possibility that this might not happen,” his ease and command speaking at the front of such a space was evident.
At sixteen, Betts had been small for his age, an honor student from an impoverished section of Suitland, Maryland. He’d never been in any trouble with the police when he and several others he scarcely knew went to a Virginia shopping mall and used a gun to force a man who’d been sleeping in his green Pontiac to turn over the vehicle and his wallet. Betts considers carjacking “the stupidest crime you can commit,” and, through the subsequent years he spent in maximum-security adult prisons, including many months in solitary confinement, he read poetry, history, political science, and fiction, and began to write verse. But he never developed an explanation for why he’d done something so apparently out of character. All he ever arrived at was strong regret, and the coefficient desire to help young people, like those he sometimes shared cells with, to do better in life.

In the News:

Reginald Dwayne Betts, Emerson Fellow, will work on a book that examines the criminal justice system through his experience as a formerly incarcerated person working as a public defender.