Reginald Dwayne Betts ’16 Receives MacArthur Fellowship

Reginald Dwayne Betts ’16, is Director of Freedom Reads, which aims to give incarcerated people access to the power of literature. Credit John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation

Reginald Dwayne Betts ’16, a poet, lawyer, and advocate for the rights and humanity of people who are or have been incarcerated, was awarded a 2021 MacArthur fellowship, informally known as a “genius” grant. The awards were announced on Sept. 27, 2021.

The MacArthur Fellowship comes with a stipend of $625,000 to each recipient paid out over five years, and is given to recipients as “an investment in a person's originality, insight, and potential,” according the MacArthur Foundation.

At Yale Law School, Betts is a Clinical Lecturer in Law and Associate Research Scholar in Law. He is also the Director of Freedom Reads, an initiative he conceptualized in order to bring curated 500-book literary time-capsules to 1,000 prisons and juvenile detention centers to each state in the United States, Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico. The nonprofit initiative aims to give incarcerated people access to the power of literature through book donations and shelving for libraries, author visits, and book circles in prisons and juvenile detention facilities.

Freedom Reads, originally launched as The Million Book Project, is funded by a grand from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and hosted at Yale Law School’s Justice Collaboratory.

Betts’s work is informed by his experience with incarceration after being tried as an adult for a carjacking at the age of 16. As a practicing lawyer, Betts fights for clemency and parole for individuals facing lengthy sentences, and he is a member of local and national taskforces dedicated to ending cash bail, limiting sentence lengths, and prohibiting the practice of sending juveniles to adult prisons.

WATCH: Reginald Dwayne Betts delivers a Dean’s Lecture on his book Felon

Betts is the author of three volumes of poetry and one memoir. His poetry reflects both his legal training — particularly his deep engagement with scholarship on notions of guilt, punishment, and justice — and his command of craft. Throughout Felon (2019), his third collection, Betts inhabits multiple voices, making visible the entire spectrum of the criminal justice system.

“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,” the MacArthur Foundation said in its announcement.

Prior to law school, Dwayne was a Radcliffe Fellow at Harvard’s Radcliffe Institute of Advanced Studies and a Soros Justice Fellow. In addition, he served by appointment of former President Barack Obama as a practitioner member of the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. While a J.D. candidate, Betts spent his summers with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the District of Columbia’s Public Defender Service. In 2016–2017, he was a Liman Fellow working in the New Haven Public Defender’s Office.

He holds a B.A. from the University of Maryland and is also currently a Ph.D. in Law candidate at Yale Law School.