An Interview with American Book Award Recipients, Reginald Dwayne Betts & Dr. Randall Horton
If you don’t already know who Betts and Horton are, Google them, and swim in the smattering of keyword-thirsty descriptors about their dated transgressions committed before they became vaunted literary creators, accomplished academics, and dogged prison reform advocates. Betts did eight years in Virginia as a teenaged youth offender, got out, graduated as an Honors Academy scholar from Prince George’s Community College, and applied to Howard University — a prestigious HBCU — while having had to check a box admitting he’d been convicted of a felony. Howard never even acknowledged his application.
Horton served less than two years after having dropped out of Howard as an undergrad, and upon his release he reapplied as a returning student. Howard rejected him on the basis of his felony record.
As incarcerated writers, journalists, and multimedia content creators, we neither support the prison abolition movement nor seek to defund the police; rather, we observe those particular philosophical nuclear wargames happening and admire the respective intellectual jousting between those opposing factions. We invited Betts and Horton to discuss with us the obstacles we’ve faced as incarcerated creators.
1. Mundo: Right now in California, you can’t even get a barber’s license with a felony, absent a Governor’s rehabilitation certification - the equivalent of a com mutation/pardon action. So, when a youth offender does every day of his term, completes the entirety of his parole, and has thereby literally paid his societal debt, if rehabilitation is the objective, shouldn’t his felony be wiped for the purposes of reintegration?
DB: We should have a far more robust use of the pardon power. We also need to eradicate some of these senseless collateral consequences. Though, maybe saying collateral consequences is also a bit of a euphemism — these are the consequences and we have to keep making the case that they are not legitimate.
RH: Yes, especially when we talk about paying this debt that is never repaid in the minds of those who only hear the word prison or felon. It becomes the anvil, that dead weight which many cannot and will not overcome.
2. Ghost: What role do you both think creative outlets like poetry, spoken word, narrative essay, podcasts, audio books, or hip-hop can play in the rehabilitative process of youth offenders?
DB: We all know that writing is that thing, the arts is that thing, that helps you know and understand not just yourself better but the world better. Art will turn an enemy into a friend far quicker than any slogan and it’ll reveal something as unexpected to you as a full moon to a two year old. You know them fat blood moons that seem so close that you can touch it? A kid sees that the first time and it feels like a kind of magic. Books and art have been the only thing I’ve encountered that always carry that magic with it. In fact, I’m reading Susan Magsamen and Ivy Ross’s new book Your Brain on Art where they elegantly make that case that art is essential to our lives and to our well-beings. Sadly it’s only in hardback now, but when the paperback it’s out, I got y’all some copies.
RH: After installing our first creative space at the Youth Detention Center in Birmingham, Alabama, the Director of the YDC revealed that our space is a haven where kids drop their masks—shed that falsehood of what I like to call hardism that is so often fatal for these young people. We have seen firsthand how art can transform a person’s moral compass, make them believe that first, they are human beings, and secondly, if they can create, then they can do for themselves.
3. Mundo: Do either of you believe ‘prisoners’ are capable of creating media that can compete in retail as content that doesn’t at all associate with or relate to the prison experience?
DB: I’m not even sure how relevant I think that question is. Of course we can and some of us do. But I don’t think we’d want to push Milton not to write about religion. We’d not want to push Jonathan Franzen to abandon his exploration of that very particular frame of American life he gets at. We don’t often choose our subjects, but even within the narrow constraints of prison as theme, in prison as subject, I find there are still vast areas of substance I still lack the skill to get at. Whatever the case, I don’t think anyone should feel boxed into a particular topic, but also don’t think they should be afraid of it.
RH: I think when we engage in this question we are engaging in perception versus reality, as in the stereotypes that are produced from being detained within the carceral state. I mean, you know, like I know, there are some very intelligent people on the inside, who read widely and can discourse with the best of them. I know I do. For context I did not write about that place they call prison in my first two books, and only sparingly in my third. It was not until my memoirs that I delved more extensively into that space in my life. The reality of this is that the prisoner and the criminal justice system are envogue and organizations are getting funded to be associated with said population. This is something we at Radical Reversal en courage, allowing those on the inside to take control of what they create/produce while being able to learn from various art forms in a collaborative manner.
4. Mundo: What would you say to policy makers in California that have yet to say yes, haven’t enabled us, & read this interview?
DB: Truth be told, I think that the support is always just around the corner. That we show up and press and reconvene and figure out how to adjust our approach, that we constantly make the work we’re doing the only calling card we need. And then folks say yes, because they want to say yes at the end of the day. I have to believe that there are folks running and working within these facilities that want to see us flourish and flourish with us, in the same way that when I was sixteen and scrawny and in a state that wasn’t my home, I had to believe that there were cats around me that wanted to see me be somebody.
RH: I would tell them to read, even if you don’t understand—read. The words, the language, what they mean in concert—and the echoes—will become clear over time. I promise. Recidivism is real. This is why I love Freedom Reads and the idea of beginning with access to books. As a Literary Ambassador to FR, I’ve seen what bringing those work-of-art bookcases to a facility can do.