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Valley State Prison Warden Matthew McVay with founder and Executive director of Freedom Reads Reginald Dwayne Betts in front of a bookcase filled with books
Valley State Prison Warden Matthew McVay with founder and Executive director of Freedom Reads Reginald Dwayne Betts (Photo by Lt. Humberto Gastelum, courtesy of CDCR)

On a Wednesday in mid-January, 17 black walnut bookshelves showed up at Valley State Prison in Chowchilla, California. Soon after, a set of the luxurious shelves was placed in each housing unit of the prison and stocked with an assortment of brand new books. 

The books ranged from classics like Homer’s “The Odyssey” and James Baldwin’s “Notes of a Native Son” to contemporary titles such as the tennis player Andre Agassi’s memoir “Open.” 

Both the bookshelves and the 500 books were donated by Freedom Reads, a nonprofit started by formerly incarcerated poet and lawyer Reginald Dwayne Betts (who also serves on Prison Journalism Project’s board of advisors). 

Freedom Reads brings literature into prisons by opening Freedom Libraries in prison housing units. It’s an initiative of the Yale Law School’s Justice Collaboratory to bring literature to prisons.

Raymond Aldridge, who has spent the past 46 years incarcerated, said he was impressed with the variety and quality of books. He noted how the books had won awards and represented different ethnicities and cultures.

Aldridge said one of his favorite books in the collection was “The Wedding Party,” by Jasmine Guillory.

“Many of the books I have wanted to read over the years are in the selection,” Aldridge said. “I am appreciative of this opportunity and grateful to those who provided it.”

Prior to the donation it was difficult to make the trek to our one prison library. It was especially difficult for those who had jobs or educational or vocational programs. 

But now we have access to a library unit in each housing unit, built by formerly incarcerated people.

Since November 2021, Freedom Reads has shipped 80,000 books and established 70 libraries across the U.S., including one in Malcolm X’s old cell in Massachusetts, according to the nonprofit’s website.

The donation to Valley State Prison was the first made to a men’s prison in California. 

“It costs a lot of money, but what is your sanity worth?” said Betts, as he watched books being placed on shelves. 

Betts knows the power of literature well. Before obtaining a law degree from Yale University and becoming a lawyer, the award-winning author and 2021 MacArthur Fellow was incarcerated at age 16 after confessing to a carjacking. He spent the next eight years in prison and started exploring literature through poetry. 

As a writer for a youth offender program at the prison, I was given permission to interview Betts in a prison housing unit for about 30 minutes.

“Prison never leaves you,” Betts told me as we drank from cans of Pepsi that I had purchased from the prison commissary for 70 cents each. I had purchased them because I wanted to be mentally sharp for the interview, but Betts looked like he could use the caffeine. 

Betts shared how he began writing by reading poems. “I thought I could handle that; a poem is short. And it changed my life,” he said.

Felon,” Betts’ 2019 book of poems about the effects of incarceration, won an NAACP Image Award and was a finalist for the 2019 Los Angeles Times Book Prize. 

“Freedom begins with a book,” Betts said. “You can radically change your life by what’s between those pages. And it doesn’t have to be nonfiction; a lot of change happens from reading novels.”  

Betts now spends much of his time running the nonprofit he founded in 2020. He said he started Freedom Reads to use literature “to confront what incarceration does to the spirit.”

“Not just for the guys inside but for staff and your families,” Betts said. “It makes me feel like I am doing some good in the world.”

Christopher Libby, another incarcerated reader, said he was happy everyone would be able to access the library. One of his favorite books in the collection was “The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History” by Elizabeth Kolbert.

“Because of the ease of access, new readers will pick up a book and read,” Libby said.

Rita Diaz, one of the Valley State Prison library’s technical assistants, thought it was wonderful that the books had been donated. 

“The more (people) read, the more their comprehension level goes up, and that leads to clearer thinking and better decision making,” Diaz said. 

She said she wanted to see everyone improve their reading level, adding that many incarcerated individuals were just “shuffled” along in school. She speculated it may be a big part of why they ended up incarcerated.

The next night, Betts spoke about books again when he performed his one-man show in front of an audience of over 100 people, including college professors and our warden.

With the smell of fresh popcorn in the air, Betts started his performance with a question: 

“What do you think of when you think of prison? Most people say violence, but for me it’s books.”

Betts kept the audience engaged as he told his life story. After a standing ovation for his performance, Betts signed copies of “Felon.”

Elizabeth Alva, coordinator of the youth offender program at Valley State Prison, said she was inspired by Betts.

“Dwayne Betts donated books to change others’ lives because books changed his life,” Alva said. “A good book can change your life, whether you read it or write it. Books last longer than your life. Books last forever.”

You never know what one event, one book or one inspirational message can do for someone. Freedom Reads invigorated me with hope and possibilities. I’m now thinking of writing a poem.

Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.

Daniel Henson

Daniel Henson is a writer incarcerated in California.