Originally published in the Winter 2022 edition of the Virginia Defender, issue 67, printed February 3. Reproduced here for accessibility and archival purposes. To find other stories in the Winter 2022 issue or to download the full PDF, see this post. For the full web catalog, see our Full Issues page.
The prison cell where Malcolm X was confined back in the 1940s has been transformed into the first of 1,000 projected “Freedom Libraries,” thanks to the vision and hard work of another former-prisoner-turned-activist, Reginald Dwayne Betts.
Betts, now an attorney and poet who last September won a MacArthur “genius” grant worth $625,000, was jailed after being tried as an adult for a carjacking he committed at the age of 16. He spent the next nine years in prison, “writing every day, reading every day, imagining that words would give me the freedom to understand what got me in prison,” because “when you’re trapped in a cell, literally, words are your only lifeline.”
Betts and his charity, Freedom Reads, with support from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, have a goal of setting up 1,000 micro-libraries in prisons across the country. The first Freedom Library opened in December at the Massachusetts Correctional Institution at Norfolk, or MCI-Norfolk, a medium-security prison in Norfolk, Mass. The library is located in the cell that Malcolm X is believed to have occupied after being convicted of robbery before he became political. At that time, the prison was known as the Norfolk Prison Colony and had a reputation for sponsoring educational programs with ties to local area colleges, including Harvard, Emerson, and Boston University.
While there, Malcom X, future world-famous revolutionary intellectual and organizer, spent his time reading, studying the dictionary and participating in the Norfolk Prison Debating Society, which he called his “baptism into public speaking.”
According to a story in the Dec. 7 (UK) Guardian, the idea to locate the library in Malcolm X’s cell actually came from the prison’s superintendent, Nelson Alves.
“I’ve worked in prisons 25 years,” Alves said, “and I’ve never seen anything beautiful here.”
And so Betts set out to build something beautiful.
“When you hear Malcolm X talk about it,” Betts said, “and understand it’s a prison in the 40s – he talks about it as a place where people valued education, where people valued knowledge. “He got a chance to be a leader of an intellectual community. So a project like this, what better place to put it to begin?”
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