A Poet, With Prison Behind Him, Becomes an Attorney

Reginald Dwayne Betts, a former convict, pictured here in 2009, is now a poet and a newly licensed attorney.Photograph by Alex Brandon / AP

Late Friday afternoon, in a small, sleepy, windowless fourth-floor courtroom at the New Haven State Superior Court, an official cried, “Oyez! Oyez! Oyez!,” as Judge Omar Williams arrived from Hartford to conduct the final business of the week. Williams looked out upon two rows of pew-like wooden benches, all of them filled, and informed the public that the court had received word from the state that Reginald Dwayne Betts, age thirty-seven, had been “successfully” approved to practice law in Connecticut. Williams then described the “honor” he felt at “being here today.” Referring to law as “a calling,” the judge said that Betts was “an inspiration.” Betts had trimmed his beard and wore a crisp blue suit over his stocky frame for an event that had the feel of a wedding. He was required to raise his right hand and swear that he’d do nothing dishonest, for personal gain or out of malice. “I do,” Betts said. And with that, the judge asked the gallery to “help me congratulate Attorney Reginald Dwayne Betts!”

Last time my mom saw me in court, I was sentenced to nine years in prison. I know nobody expected this then. Least of all me.

Connecticut’s newest lawyer held his license and began to read from it aloud. Then he stopped, looked at his mother, who had come from Maryland, and thanked her, saying, “Last time my mom saw me in court, I was sentenced to nine years in prison. I know nobody expected this then. Least of all me.” He proceeded to identify every witness in the room: his law professors from Yale, his aunt Pandora, his wife and sons. A number of friends were present, including me. (We met a few years ago, through mutual friends in New Haven, and grew close.) “There’s even a prosecutor in the house!” Betts said. As he told us all how he’d “sweated over the possibility that this might not happen,” his ease and command speaking at the front of such a space was evident.

At sixteen, Betts had been small for his age, an honor student from an impoverished section of Suitland, Maryland. He’d never been in any trouble with the police when he and several others he scarcely knew went to a Virginia shopping mall and used a gun to force a man who’d been sleeping in his green Pontiac to turn over the vehicle and his wallet. Betts considers carjacking “the stupidest crime you can commit,” and, through the subsequent years he spent in maximum-security adult prisons, including many months in solitary confinement, he read poetry, history, political science, and fiction, and began to write verse. But he never developed an explanation for why he’d done something so apparently out of character. All he ever arrived at was strong regret, and the coefficient desire to help young people, like those he sometimes shared cells with, to do better in life.

After his release from prison, Betts worked in a paint store, attended Prince George’s Community College and then received his bachelor’s degree from the University of Maryland, earned a Master of Fine Arts from Warren Wilson College, and eventually became the rare convicted felon to gain admission to and graduate from Yale Law School. He carried the flag for his class at his commencement, as he did at college. He has published two prize-winning collections of poetry and a memoir, and has worked with young defendants for the New Haven public defender’s office while pursuing a doctorate in law at Yale. Several times a month, he speaks to inmates in prisons all over the country, including the facilities where he did his time. Many of the communications he receives from inmates who have read his work or heard him speak describe how meaningful and motivating it is to see someone who was once in their predicament go forward in such a way.

Betts passed the Connecticut bar exam in February. In early August, he was alerted by his anonymous examiners that his application to practice could not be accepted because of concerns about his moral character and fitness to serve. Further review was pending. His reaction at the time was frustration. “There’s no law-school course for studying character,” he told me. The question of whether Betts should be permitted to practice law cut to the center of national conversations about mass incarceration and the meaning of rehabilitation. If this sixteen-year-old could not mature in character, who could? If the criminal-justice system could not benefit from the transformative experience of a young black man who’d seen it from both sides, how interested were we, as a nation, in the redemption and successful progress of the six hundred and fifty thousand former prison inmates who reënter the general population every year? Upon release, most return to poor and disenfranchised communities. Approximately two-thirds are arrested again within three years. At the end of September, Betts received word of his acceptance to the bar.

Some of Betts’s family and friends gathered after the ceremony. Betts’s wife, Terese, described their second date, when he confessed to her that he’d been in prison for eight years and three months. “He was so nervous about telling me, and I didn’t understand why he thought it was such a negative thing when he’s such a positive person,” she said. Betts’s aunt Pandora agreed that her nephew had found a way to let his worst moments inform his contribution to the public good.

She also said that, even as an infant, Betts had shown promise as an advocate: “Before he knew how to talk, he would argue with you by babbling, and he’d win the argument.” The poet Elizabeth Alexander then raised a glass and spoke of the way in which everyone is evolving and changing all the time, and how, in prison, through his deep feeling for language, Betts had found beauty enough to identify “the words that saved him.”

Nicholas Dawidoff
The Atlantic

Nicholas Dawidoff is the author of five books, including “The Crowd Sounds Happy: A Story of Love and Madness in an American Family,” a memoir of his boyhood.