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Life Inside

Going Back to Prison Never Gets Easy

A Yale Law School graduate speaks to young incarcerated people and faces his own past.

This article was published in collaboration with Vice.

The last bus to Richmond, Va., left New York City at 10 p.m. I missed it by 11 minutes.

I was headed to Richmond to speak at a juvenile detention facility, but got my departure time confused. Truth is, a part of me might not have wanted to go. In the past year, for my new career as a public defender and youth advocate, I’d visited more than a dozen prisons, jails, and juvenile facilities — and each time felt as though I was walking through a time portal straight into my past.

Twenty years ago, when I was no older than the teens I was slated to address, I carjacked a man at gunpoint at a mall in Fairfax County, Va. By the time I sped away with his car, I had committed enough felonies to nearly ruin my life. But since then, I’d earned a Yale law degree and become, with almost a decade in prison behind me, something of an ideal candidate to deliver the high-school commencement speech to students on the inside.

I’ve always hated walking into prisons — and it’s not any easier now. It’s not that I imagine I’ll be cuffed and shackled again and prevented from leaving, but that I am reminded, every time I enter one of these places, of the absurdity of justice in America. The audacity of it all, locking teenagers in cages and expecting them not to explode.

But I had to make it there for the kids, and knew only one way to get to Richmond in time: catch a cab to the airport and rent a car, then drive straight through the night with cheap gas station coffee as my companion.

By midnight, frustrated and exhausted, I was driving down the Jersey Turnpike. The sky was almost black, and I was reminded of past early mornings, being transferred from one prison to another, in similar darkness. If I hadn’t been raised on the inside, used to little sleep, I might not have gotten behind that wheel at all.

W hen I got to Bon Air Correctional Center seven hours later, I entered a time machine, exactly as feared. I recognized the place, because in many ways these places are all the same. The barbed wire that tops the fences that enclose the buildings. The buzzers that announce your presence, your movement. The clank of firmly closing gates. I recognized the same old gaze of the guards; the thousands of stories in the eyes of the kids there. The hurt.

Yet, walking in, I was acutely aware that I was no longer a prisoner: I parked in a spot intended for a “community coordinator.” And after buzzing near the first steel gate, I’d walked in confidently, telling the guard I was the guest speaker.

The general kindness of the guards told me that the steel gates and the barbed wire were not meant for me anymore. I knew the guards had no real idea of who I was, nor that I had once been just like their current wards. It was as if I was both at home and a stranger.

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After I made it all the way inside, the event began, with graduates and their families filling a windowless gym that doubled as an auditorium. Before I spoke, five young men came near the stage to perform lyrics from the musical “Hamilton.”

How does a bastard, orphan, son of a whore...
Grow up to be a hero and a scholar?

I was taken aback. Just a day earlier, I’d actually seen “Hamilton” with my wife, Terese, on Broadway in Manhattan. The coincidence nearly brought me to tears.

What seemed to resonate most about the musical as the children performed their song was how far Hamilton had come: from being broke, poor, and an orphan to becoming one of America’s founding fathers. For my audience, the words and music meant that you could wake up in a prison cell but know that life will be more than just a series of other prison cells. That’s the power of theater, of performance, for incarcerated people.

When it was my turn to speak, I told them my story, and how for years I had tried to convince my mother that my life would be about something more than the pain I had caused through my crimes. The room was quiet as I talked about my incarceration, the years I spent in college, the work I do now, all as a way of saying that, with time, it became possible for me to do something more for my mother than just make her cry.

And then a young boy in the audience, the little brother of one of the graduates, squealed, and his mother tried to calm him down. It brought me back to the wretchedness of the place. Instead of continuing with my intended remarks, I told the kids that this little boy and his mother had walked through several barbed-wire fences and locked gates to get to that chair, and had braved invasive searches and the indignity of their own temporary incarceration to celebrate their loved ones.

The young men and women in the audience were at turns staring intently at me, at other times nearly incredulous. Fair enough — after all, the suit I wore, my brand-new Allen Edmonds, and the fact that I’d just watched “Hamilton” on Broadway the night before suggested that I could be a lot of things, but a convicted felon? Not one of them.

People often ask me if I am traumatized when I return to prisons. What I want to tell them is that after I left prison, my ambition was to do something to halt the herding of young black people behind bars. But when I return, I feel my inadequacy to do so.

The trauma has never been about returning. In many ways, returning is a kind of coming home — a duty and an obligation.

Reginald Dwayne Betts is the author of three books, most recently Bastards of the Reagan Era, a collection of poetry. He is a graduate of Yale Law School.