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Freedom Library exhibit highlights Reginald Dwayne Betts' work bringing books inside prisons

 Reginald Dwayne Betts (John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation)
Reginald Dwayne Betts (John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation)

When Reginald Dwayne Betts was 16, he was sentenced to prison for committing a carjacking. He survived his sentence, he says, by reading.

Now a writer and lawyer, Betts is the founder of Freedom Reads, an organization that creates micro-libraries in prison. The concept, called the Freedom Library, is the result of a partnership with the architecture firm MASS Design and is now on display at the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C.

“The library installation is an opportunity for the world to see something as beautiful that was created first for people in prison to make an argument, a case for the need for beauty in prisons and to make an argument and a case for the way that books provide people with a resource to access dignity and affirm their own dignity,” he says.

Betts, who won a MacArthur Genius Grant last fall, says books provide a “pathway to freedom” for people in prison because they allow them to encounter experiences that they aren’t able to behind those walls.

“You take a place like prison that’s really devoid of an opportunity to feel. You won’t see a tulip in prison. You won’t see a peony in prison. You won’t see fallen leaves in most prisons,” he says. “So the ways in which we access the living world is often deprived of folks in prison, but books allow you to touch some of that. Books allow you to access some of that.”

The curved design of the bookshelves gives them the flexibility to fit in different spaces, which is specific to the challenges of creating a library inside a prison.

“I always was thinking, ‘How do you turn a security concern into a design feature that’s useful for something besides security?” he says. “It had to be like 44 inches high, so it didn’t obstruct the line of sight, but I said, ‘But wait a minute, what if we made sure that you could access the books on both sides?’ And that way it doesn’t obstruct the line of sight, but it also allows two people to be in community with books at the same time.”

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

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