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Poet turns Malcolm X’s prison cell into ‘freedom library’

The prison cell that was occupied by the civil rights activist has been transformed into the first of 1,000 planned ‘freedom libraries’.

Poet and lawyer Reginald Dwayne Betts is using his MacArthur ‘genius grant’, worth $625,000 (£471,000) to set up 1,000 micro-libraries in US prisons through his charity, Freedom Reads, starting with Malcolm X’s cell.

The first of these ‘freedom libraries’ is located in Norfolk Prison, Massachusetts where Malcolm X was imprisoned during the 1970s, and where he developed his passion for reading under the influence of fellow inmate, John Bembry.

In his 1965 autobiography, Malcolm X recalled the hours he spent in the library there, reading and studying the dictionary, inspiring Betts’ to launch this project.

Betts discussed how Malcolm X believed that a “prerequisite for changing your life” is an “understanding of what it means to be guilty”.

The poet, who authored Felon Poems, himself was incarcerated as an adult for 9 years, for carjacking when he was 16.

He spent those years “writing every day, reading every day, imagining that words would give me the freedom to understand what got me in prison.”

“When you’re trapped in a cell, literally, words are your only lifeline.”

The idea for the location of the first library actually came from Norfolk Prison’s superintendent, Nelson Alves.

“I’ve worked in prisons for 25 years and I’ve never seen anything beautiful here.”

The ‘freedom library’ includes a mix of non-fiction and fiction, including the activist’s autobiography, the novel of Dickens, as well as a range of contemporary and diverse works, and “a lot of women writers.”

The charity Freedom Reads, spearheaded by Betts and supported by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, aims to provide a response to the ‘indignity’ accompanying incarceration.

Their website reflects the ethos of the founder, describing the book as a “powerful symbol of freedom.”

During their curation of the chosen books, members of the charity spoke to thousands of different people, those who had experience behind bars and those who hadn’t, asking about meaningful, memorable and moving books they had read.

For example, the scholar and former inmate Darnell Epps put forward William Stuntz’s The Collapse of American Criminal Justice, stating it was the one book he brought home from prison.

Beyond the libraries, Freedom Reads also runs a Literary Ambassador programme, which brings authors into prisons to meet with inmates, and discuss their books.

Honorée Fanonne Jeffers is one such Ambassador, whose debut novel, The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois was sent in advance of widespread release to Connally Prison, Texas as part of the scheme.

One of the readers said that her book “stirred all sorts of emotion in me; it enlightened me, made me happy, sad, and angry.”

If you want to support the work of Reginald Dwayne Betts and Freedom Reads, you can donate here.


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