Malcolm X’s former prison cell will be a library for inmates
The Boston Globe reports that Reginald Dwayne Betts, a MacArthur Prize-winning poet who himself spent eight years in prison, is considering converting an MCI-Norfolk jail cell into a new ‘liberty library’, as part of a grant project through the Mellon Foundation. Betts wants to build library spaces in prisons across the country, and although this is the first of his Freedom Library project, it is a particularly powerful starting point – it is the cell that allegedly imprisoned Malcolm X in the time when he began his conversion to Islam.
âWhen you hear Malcolm X talk about it – and understand it’s a prison in the 1940s – he talks about it as a place where people value education, where people value knowledge,â Betts said, 41 years. âHe was fortunate to be the leader of an intellectual community. So a project like this, what better place to set it up?
The idea of ââprison as a place of transformation seems to have captured Betts’ imagination. He was locked up for his role in a carjacking, serving an eight-year sentence before being released. He first became a poet, then turned to law and prison reform. He graduated from Yale Law School and is currently working on a doctorate there.
âThe problem with freedom libraries is that we put them in housing,â Betts said. âWe put them close to where the people are. So every day when they look at their cells or when they look around their living quarters, they can see something beautiful and they can access these books. These books can be a part of their life for as long as they need to be there. Plus, books can become a conduit so they don’t have to be there. “
Although many prisons have libraries, they tend to focus on legal texts. In contrast, Betts runs the Malcolm X Freedom Library with a mix of fiction and non-fiction books, including classics of prison literature such as Claude Brown. The male child in the promised land and that of John Edgar Wideman Brothers and guardians, as well as more traditional classics by Charles Dickens, John Steinbeck, poetry by Elizabeth Alexander and Robert Hayden, and of course, the autobiography of Malcom X. About a fifth of the books will be in Spanish.
Prison lawyer and MacArthur’s ‘genius’ turn what could be Malcolm X’s former cell into a library and place of hope [Adrian Walker / The Boston Globe]
Image: Jay Tomboli / Flickr (CC-BY-SA