Author to share his story from being a prisoner to being published

Poet and Memoirist Reginald Dwayne Betts will share his story of overcoming odds as part of the community-wide book read, “La Crosse Reads.”

Reginald Betts’ visit is part of La Crosse Reads

Reginald Dwayne Betts, a poet, memoirist and graduate of Yale law school, will share his story of overcoming the odds as part of the La Crosse Reads project.

Betts participated in a carjacking at age 16 and landed a nine-year prison sentence. While in prison, he began to read formative books by black and African-American authors including Ernest Gaines — the author of this year’s Read — and began to write poetry. Betts will share his story and read from his works during two presentations:

  • Wednesday, Feb. 15, 6 p.m. book signing; 7 p.m. keynote address; Theatre, Room 120 UWL Student Union, 521 East Ave. N.
  • Thursday, Feb. 16, 6 p.m. book signing; 7 p.m. reading from his works; Lunda Center, Western Technical College, 400 7th St. N.

The presentations are free and part of La Crosse Reads, a community-wide, grass-roots book read that is part of a $14,000 National Endowment for the Arts Big Read grant received by the UWL English Department and the La Crosse Public Library. Area libraries, schools and other organizations are joining with a variety of programming and venues.

During the keynote lecture, Betts will share not only his transformation from prisoner to scholar, poet and Yale Law student, but also will use his experiences to speak to issues of the American criminal justice system.

The book cover of author Reginald Dwayne Betts who will give two presentations in La Crosse Feb. 15 and 16.

His memoir, “A Question of Freedom: A Memoir of Learning, Survival, and Coming of Age in Prison,” is his story of being incarcerated in the worst prisons in Virginia where solitary confinement, horrific conditions, and the constant violence threatened to break his humanity. Instead, Betts used the time to turn himself into a poet, scholar and advocate for the reform of the criminal justice system.

Betts has also written two collections of poetry, “Bastards of the Reagan Era” and “Shahid Reads His Own Palm.”

The national spokesperson for the Campaign for Youth Justice, Betts writes and lectures about the impact of mass incarceration on American society, advocating for juvenile justice and prison reform. President Barack Obama appointed him to the Coordinating Council of the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.

In spring 2016, Betts graduated from Yale Law School. He has also received an associate degree from Prince George’s Community College, a bachelor’s degree from the University of Maryland, and a master’s from Warren Wilson College’s M.F.A. Program for Writers. He lives with his wife and two sons in New Haven, Connecticut.

La Crosse Read’s featured book is Ernest J. Gaines’ novel, “A Lesson Before Dying” that tells the story of a young teacher’s relationship to a death-row inmate wrongfully convicted of robbery and murder, and how this unusual relationship affects the community of a small, fictional Cajun town.

UWL is one of only 77 non-profit organizations nationwide that received grants totaling more than $1 million for Big Read projects running through June 2017. The goal of Big Reads, according to the NEA, is “to broaden our understanding of our world, our communities and ourselves through the joy of sharing a good book.”