Books | Autumn 2011
A Question of Freedom
By Elissa Cook
A Question of Freedom: A Memoir of Learning, Survival, and Coming of Age in Prison
R. Dwayne Betts
Avery Trade (2010), 256 pages
There are plenty of books in the world about people who had to hit bottom before they started making something of themselves. Sometimes — as in the notable case of Malcolm X — this transition process starts in prison.
But although A Question of Freedom chronicles R. Dwayne Betts’ nine years in prison, it is in fact a reversal of this old story: The tale of a young man who was on the right track before he “walk[ed] away from a bad idea a minute too late” and ended up certified as an adult at age 16 for carjacking.
Betts comes back to the nightmare experience that landed him in prison multiple times throughout his book, revealing just how many hours he spent turning the incident over and over in his mind. Though he questions, probes, and criticizes many aspects of the prison system — and, by extension, of America’s judicial system — one thing he does not do is blame his circumstances for his incarceration. He freely admits his guilt and acknowledges that “the words that begin to say something useful about what leads a sixteen-year-old to pick up a gun for the first time and tap gently on someone’s window before demanding his car don’t excuse why I did it.”
It’s this precise gentle acknowledgment, tinged with shame, that sets the book’s tone and makes it so intriguing. Prison was no inevitable end for Betts; he stayed away from drugs and violence (for the most part), had a supportive mother, and grew up an avid reader. In high school, he had a high GPA and planned on going into the engineering program at Georgia Tech. Yet though he comes back to his crime again and again, he cannot give a concrete answer to the why that haunts the book. At the end, he muses, “maybe there is no real why, no one definitive answer to give people when they ask, ‘Why did you do it?’ After eight years in prison answers didn’t come any easier.”
In a way, this last statement sums up the entire book, which is at its core a book of questions that float unanswered. But in the 256 pages of asking, readers are given a primer in juvenile certification laws, the overwhelming number of black men in prison, violence, human rights violations, and the diversity, creativity, and language of inmates. Prison, we learn, is “a multitude of grays” where raw violence is a language, yet innovation flourishes; where rules mean little compared to power; where knives and artwork can be fashioned in the same room.
Though Betts read many books before he was locked up, it was the desperation he gained from being locked in a cell that gave him “the opportunity to start looking for the sense behind the words.” And in looking for this sense, he began to want to write about the world around him — “the life that I didn’t see in books.” This quest is summed up in the name Betts chose for himself in prison: Shahid, Arabic for “the witness.” Out of this witnessing comes a beautiful book on the power of words to frame and shape a life.
A Question of Freedom is divided into short chapters, but each one can easily be read as a stand-alone vignette. Betts’ poetic language (he published a book of poems shortly after this work) is soft-spoken, filled with grief at things too deep to be written, and, occasionally, a shout of rage and despair. Each chapter cries out to be reread and pondered. For this reason, the book can seem to wander and become repetitive at times; readers looking for an action-packed story of prison life will have to look elsewhere. What Betts has given us is not an account of life in prison so much as a meditation on life in prison, its effect on the incarcerated, and how things could be different.
Besides breaking down just about all of the common assumptions about prison, this book will prompt readers to take a serious look at America’s prison system and juvenile sentencing laws. At a time when the U.S. prison population exceeds 2.3 million, the sheer scope of the issue can numb well-meaning citizens to the true cost of our justice system.
Betts provides readers with a great gift: the chance to turn statistics into names, faces, and lives. Questioning, critiquing, and wondering how a better future can be made, A Question of Freedom asks the hard questions and leaves readers to search out the answers.
Elissa Cook graduated in 2011 from Seattle Pacific University with a major in Spanish and a minor in English literature, after which she returned to her hometown of St. Paul, Minnesota. She will use her passion for reading and writing next year as a kindergarten literacy tutor with Minnesota Reading Corps, an AmeriCorps program.
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