I was a teenage inmate. Books were my lifeline

If anything connects us in this world — and sometimes I’m not sure anything does — it might be suffering. If that is true, then prison is the symbol of all the hurt in the world. And books are a symbol of letting go of the hurt and being free.



April 11, 2024 - 3:10 PM

No prison sentence begins the same, but they all become the same relentless struggle against disappearing. Almost 20 years after my release, prison still has not let me go. I return to prisons now with the organization I founded, Freedom Reads, to let people inside know that they haven’t disappeared. But as a friend wrote: “Nobody should want to go back to prison to feel better about themselves.”

At 16, I tried to carjack two women walking to their car in a dark parking lot and also carjacked a man asleep in his car. For the pain I caused those people, I was tried as an adult and sent to state prison in Virginia. Once inside, without a pistol, I was as vulnerable as any child would be in such a place. And so the hole was the safest spot for me.

Every facility has its own slang for solitary confinement. The hole. The box. The SHU. Jail. All evoke terror. But I found solace in the hole. Every minute my eyes were open, a book was in my hands. Because the world of literature was the only thing that kept me imagining a future for myself beyond the vagaries of state custody. It sustained me when everything else, even the voices of the men and boys around me, made me feel so terribly lonely.

There is a paradox about prison. The most foreign world that anyone can experience, it becomes the way that we recognize the world’s suffering. In February, Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny was found dead in his prison cell. Reports of how he lived out his final days were a reminder of two things: Prison is the world’s most universal method of torture, and books are central to the fight against the disappearing that follows a prison sentence.

Navalny spent some 300 days in solitary confinement. I spent nearly twice as many confined within 7-by-10-foot cells in the hole. There were times when beans were my only food. Times when the air was cold and the blankets thin. And always books were scarce.

“I spend most of my day with a book in my hand,” Navalny wrote. My first knowledge of Russian prisons came from a novel I salvaged from the prison recreation yard. Locked in nearly soundproof cages, the men in the novel created a code of knocks and taps. Around me, the men called handwritten notes “kites.” To get word to a friend, they used dental floss and fingernail clippers to sling them hundreds of feet from cell to cell.

If anything connects us in this world — and sometimes I’m not sure anything does — it might be suffering. If that is true, then prison is the symbol of all the hurt in the world. And books are a symbol of letting go of the hurt and being free.

There is a particular kind of madness that comes from knowing that prison is trying to kill you, and wanting it to kill you, and insisting still with your entire being that you will live. There is a particular kind of beauty in the belief that freedom might begin with a book.

When I was in the hole, men devised an ingenious pulley system employing a line made from a torn sheet to pass books back and forth between solitary and the general population. A veritable library was conveyed along this system. One of those books introduced me to poetry, and later poetry introduced me to the Russian poet Anna Akhmatova.

In “Requiem,” Akhmatova wrote of waiting 17 months at the gates of the Leningrad prison for her son’s release. A woman noticing the famous poet asks: “Can you describe this?” “Mogu,” Akhmatova wrote. “I can.” 

Those women waiting before Leningrad share the story of every woman who walked into visiting rooms at Red Onion State Prison and Sussex 1 State Prison in Virginia, the story of every woman standing before prisons all over this world. These women, our conscience, tell us that we deserve better than a system that puts Franz Kafka’s wildest tortures to shame.

In the days after her son’s death, Lyudmila Navalnaya stood vigil before the Polar Wolf colony. She demanded the body of her son, so that she could bury him. My mother trooped to prison for me, too. This is a shock of a thing that connects me to Navalny.

Books also connect me to Navalny. I discovered Mount Vesuvius — the Italian mountain I’ll climb with my mother this summer, as an apology to her for prison — between the pages of an encyclopedia. Books could not carry Navalny to freedom, but they carried me there. Can you describe this? Women who love sons in prison are on an island, waiting. Those inside, strung up by a sentence, wonder, too. Can you describe this? Like Akhmatova, I want to say: I can. Such is the radical possibility of language in the face of human suffering.

About the author: Reginald Dwayne Betts is the founder and director of Freedom Reads.