From prison to law school to the Genius grant


Congratulations go to Reginald Dwayne Betts, one of the recent recipients of a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship, or “Engineering Grant”. Betts is a Yale Law School alumnus 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 incarcerated rights comes from a deeply personal place.

Betts’ journey has drawn a lot of attention, as he attended law school after serving time for carjacking at the age of 16. When he was released he received a BA from the University of Maryland, an MFA from Warren Wilson College and, of course, his Yale JD. In addition, he is working on a doctorate in law at Yale. Betts was also appointed by President Barack Obama to the Coordinating Council of the Office of Juvenile Justice and Crime Prevention, and has served on the Connecticut Criminal Justice Commission since 2018.

In addition, he started a non-profit organization. Extract from the biography of the MacArthur Foundation:

Betts recently launched the nonprofit Freedom Reads to give incarcerated people access to the power of literature. Freedom Reads donates books and shelves for libraries, organizes author visits and sets up reading circles in prisons and juvenile detention centers. Through his deeply moving poems, public defense work and advocacy efforts, Betts offers a unique perspective on the lifelong impacts of incarceration and the injustice of a criminal justice system so heavily dependent on it.

Betts is not the only former detainee turned lawyer to have received an engineering scholarship 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 received the designation of genius this year. Glory!

Meade’s work with FRRC got the Criminals Voting Rights Restoration initiative – designed to re-emancipate former criminals via a constitutional amendment – on the ballot in 2018. But the work for voting rights is a long way off to be finished:

On November 6, 2018, the amendment was adopted with 64% of the votes. It re-emancipated up to 1.5 million Florida residents and led to the biggest expansion of voting rights in the country in the past fifty years. Since then, the Florida legislature has passed a measure requiring that fines and costs associated with a person’s conviction be paid before voting rights are restored. Currently, FRRC helps people find the information they need to meet requirements (as the state is not obligated to provide it) and provides financial assistance to meet outstanding financial obligations.

The full list of this year’s MacArthur Fellows is available here.


Nancy I. Romero

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