R. Dwayne Betts

A Question of Freedom

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A Question of Freedom Summary

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A Question of Freedom is a 2009 autobiographical memoir by the American poet, author, and teacher R. Dwayne Betts. Subtitled A Memoir of Learning, Survival and Coming of Age in Prison, the book is a riveting look at Betts’ time in prison following his involvement in a carjacking at the age of sixteen. In 2010, A Question of Freedom was the recipient of an NAACP Image Award for non-fiction.

Following a poem written by Betts called “Shahid Reads His Own Palms,” the first chapter, “30 Minutes,” describes how Betts, a teenaged high school honors student who straddles the worlds of school and streets, ends up with an eight-year prison sentence. He and a friend are responsible for a 1996 carjacking that nets them ten bucks, a cellular phone, and a credit card that, once used, alerts the police to their location and results in their arrests. Of carjacking, Betts writes, it’s “the stupidest crime you can commit. There’s no money in it. Just glorified joyriding.”

Once in prison, Betts is given a “state number” which, as the author writes, begins to mean more than his own name.

Delving more into this new language he is forced to adopt, Betts writes, “On my lips and in my head was the start of a new language defined by the way words changed meanings, all because I’d decided to make a man a victim. New words like inmate, state number, and juvenile certification had crept into my vocabulary.”
The transition to prison life is especially dramatic and startling for Betts, as the youth is not only an honors student but also the class treasurer at Suitland High School in the Washington, D.C. suburb of District Heights, Maryland. His course-load includes classes like Honors English, AP History, Pre-Calculus, Physics, French 4, and Computer Math. At the time of his arrest, Betts wears glasses and has braces on his teeth.

The central question of the book—indeed, the one included in the title—is, “Why did Betts do it?” It’s a question Betts ponders during his arrest, his trial, and over the eight years he spends in prison. And yet, there is no easy answer to this question. Betts writes that when the oldtimers in prison ask him, “What are you in for?” it’s a far more complicated question than, simply, “What is your crime?” The question is more about why Betts, a good student with a loving mother, would ever dream of going out with a gun strapped to him, on the look for someone “to make a victim,” as he himself puts it?

To his friends and family, all of whom spoke up for him in court, the answer is that Betts doesn’t have a father. However, Betts knows this isn’t an accurate answer. The closest to an answer is that he, like most sixteen-year-olds, was impulsive. He made a bad decision, a decision that took no more than thirty minutes to transpire. Unlike most other sixteen-year-olds, his bad decision landed him in prison for eight years.

Beyond this question of “Why he did it,” Betts considers a number of facets of life that, when considered from the perspective of an inmate, take on new meaning for him. These topics include race, violence, family, and literature. Moreover, while Betts realizes he is responsible for a serious crime, he is deeply critical of the laws in Virginia which, for so-called “certifiable” crimes like carjacking, treat all minors as adults, putting this 126-pound sixteen-year-old in a population of hardened, adult criminals. Betts also spends time on a fact that won’t be a surprise to most readers, which is that the vast, vast majority of criminals serving hard time in American penitentiaries are black, poor, or—in most cases—both.
Is it fair for a young, promising young man to have his life turned upside down because of one thirty-minute mistake? Is it fair for a carjacking that nets him no real benefit whatsoever to cause him to be charged with a whopping six felonies and imprisoned with adults twice his age or more for over eight years? These are some of the other questions Betts examines with lyricism and poeticism reserved for a poet as talented as Betts. As for the answer to these questions, Betts comes down somewhere in the middle between taking personal responsibility and recognizing the racist, inequitable nature of America’s prison system.

In a 2009 interview with NPR, Betts makes a chilling remark on how prison changed him: “Because I spent so much time in prison and all of my adult memories get funneled through the fact that I went to prison, I really can’t recover from them because I can’t move beyond them. I’m here today and I should be happy. And it is a joyous moment for me. I wrote a book, I just graduated from college. But every minute I know part of the reason that I’m here is because the stories that I tell came from prison.”

Insights like this and many others are shared throughout Betts’s A Question of Freedom, effectively putting readers into the head of a human at his lowest moment and how he learns to overcome this adversity.