Coming of Age in Prison

As a college educated man, Reginald Dwyane Betts reflects on his 8 ½ years of incarceration in county jail during a C-SPAN interview with Cure Violence’s Eduardo Bocanegra, a Violence Interrputer. In this interview, Betts speaks about growing up in prison and his book, "A Question of Freedom: A Memoir of Learning, Survival, and Coming of Age in Prison."
Betts, an honor student and class treasurer at Suitland High School, was incarcerated at the age of 16 for armed carjacking. He was the only juvenile in the county jail.
Though prison is a disturbing reality for a 16 year old, Betts described his time behind bars as a learning experience where he gained a deeper understanding of the world around him. “As much as prison was a terrible place, it was the most diverse place I had ever been,” he explained. Being in prison gave Betts a chance to speak with African-American elders and he was able to understand a history of failures and successes in his own culture. He considers himself fortune for having a desire for knowledge and learning which allowed him to grow as a person, even in the confinement of prison.

While incarcerated, Betts decided to write about his experience in prison. He wanted “to start a conversation about the role of the justice system in our various communities.” Prior to committing his crime, he read Nathan McCall’s “Makes Me Wanna Holler” and other prison stories and had even “thought about what incarceration meant in the black community…and yet I still committed a crime.” While in prison, Betts wanted to more fully explore McCall’s themes and what it means to come of age in the juvenile justice system. He also wanted to speak to the needs that go beyond stopping violence and move toward building a positive life. 
Bocanegra led the discussion with the audience and shared that he too believes that sometimes youths’ experiences expose and engage violence within the community. As a Violence Interrupter, Bocanegra has first hand experience with troubled teens, street violence and group disputes. He has seen the impact that traumatic events and violence can have on a child’s life.
When asked to share a “funny story” about his time behind bars, Betts instead shared how brutal prison could be. His story illustrated a disturbing trend: while incarcerated, it’s easy to become numb to violence. But what does this mean for those looking to build a life without violence after prison?
After incarceration, Betts attended the University of Maryland and is now the founder of YoungMenRead, a book club for at-risk young men. He is doing his part to start conversations about preventing crime in the community and review policy issues in the juvenile justice system.
Through speaking and outreach, Betts hopes to bring a clearer understanding of the juvenile justice system to communities. He strongly believes that rehabilitation and reintegration into society is possible through:

  • Education (humanity, academic and vocational)
  • Getting in touch with community
  • Bringing awareness with knowledge to the community

Watch the interview

Kat Shannon is a Digital Communications intern at Prichard Communications, where she assists on several accounts, including Reclaiming Futures. She is a student at the University of Oregon studying Public Relations, with a minor in Business Administration. She is an Oregon native and a California dreamer.  

Updated: February 08 2018