Reginald Dwayne Betts' poetry and fierce advocacy for the incarcerated helped him earn a 2021 MacArthur Foundation Fellowship.
Reginald Dwayne Betts could have been another statistic. At 16, Betts—an honor student who never had a run-in with police—was sentenced to nine years for a carjacking, "the stupidest crime you can commit," he told the New Yorker. While incarcerated, Betts developed a love of poetry after reading the "Black Poets" anthology. When he was released in 2005, he went back to school, first to community college, then earning a bachelor's degree from the University of Maryland and a Master of Fine Arts from Warren Wilson before graduating from Yale Law School. He passed the Connecticut bar exam in 2017, but examiners questioned his character because of his prison stint and rejected his application to practice law in the state; powerful allies spoke up on his behalf, and he was finally granted his license. During that time, Betts would publish two collections of poetry and a memoir while working for the New Have public defender's office. He would also earn a spot on our list in 2018 after he was awarded a Guggenheim fellowship for poetry. In 2019, Betts released his third collection of poetry, "Felon," which author Mitchell S. Jackson called "the keenest of testaments to what it's like to have lived behind the walls." That same year, he collaborated with visual artist and filmmaker Titus Kaphar on an exhibit at New York City's MoMA PS1 called "Redaction," which used redacted public documents to expose how the cash-bail system preys on the poor and marginalized. Recently, he launched Freedom Reads, an organization that donates books and develops reading clubs for juvenile facilities and prisons. His insightful poetry and advocacy on behalf of the incarcerated helped Betts earn a 2021 MacArthur Foundation Fellowship.