Congratulations are in order for Reginald Dwayne Betts one of the recent winners of a MacArthur Foundation fellowship, or “genius grant.” Betts is a Yale Law School alum and accomplished author — publishing Felon (2019), Bastards of the Reagan Era (2015), Shahid Reads His Own Palm (2010), and the memoir Question of Freedom: A Memoir of Learning, Survival, and Coming of Age in Prison (2009) — whose passion for the rights of the incarcerated comes from a deeply personal place.
Betts’s journey has gotten a lot of attention, since he attended law school after serving a prison sentence for a carjacking when he was 16 years old. When he was released he got a BA from the University of Maryland, an MFA from Warren Wilson College, and, of course, his Yale JD. Additionally, he’s working on a PhD in law back at Yale. Betts was also appointed by President Barack Obama to the Coordinating Council of the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, and has served since 2018 on Connecticut’s Criminal Justice Commission.
Plus he’s started a nonprofit. From the MacArthur Foundation’s biography:
Betts recently launched the nonprofit Freedom Reads to give incarcerated people access to the power of literature. Freedom Reads donates books and shelving for libraries, organizes author visits, and sets up book circles in prisons and juvenile detention facilities. Through his profoundly moving poems, public defense work, and advocacy efforts, Betts provides a unique perspective on the lifelong impacts of incarceration and the injustice of a criminal justice system that relies so heavily upon it.
Betts isn’t the only former inmate turned lawyer to be the recipient of a genius grant this year. Desmond Meade — who received his JD from Florida International University School of Law, wrote Let My People Vote (2020), and is the president and executive director of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition (FRRC) — also got the genius designation this year. Kudos!
Meade’s work with FRRC got the Voting Rights Restoration for Felons Initiative — designed to re-enfranchise former felons via constitutional amendment — on the ballot in 2018. But the work for voting rights is far from over:
On November 6, 2018, the amendment passed with 64 percent of the vote. It re-enfranchised as many as 1.5 million Florida residents and resulted in the largest expansion of voting rights in the country in the last fifty years. Since that time, the Florida legislature passed a measure requiring that legal fines and fees connected with a person’s conviction be paid before voting rights are restored. Currently, FRRC is helping people find the information they need to meet the requirements (as the state is not obligated to provide it) and providing financial assistance to meet outstanding financial obligations.
The full list of this year’s MacArthur fellows is available here.