A Poet Gives a 360 Degree View of the Criminal Justice System (ep. 38)

March 21, 2019
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Reginald Dwayne Betts is a published poet, memoirist, and legal scholar who's currently pursuing a Ph.D. in law at Yale. His legal work, like his poetry, is informed by the years he spent in prison as a teen. This week he sits down with At Liberty to discuss his journey to the legal profession, his perspective of the criminal justice system, and his art.

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EMERSON SYKES
[0:04] From the ACLU, this is At Liberty. I'm Emerson Sykes, a staff attorney here at the ACLU and your host. Our guest today is Reginald Dwayne Betts, a published poet, memoirist, and legal scholar who's currently pursuing a Ph.D. in law at Yale. His accomplishments are noteworthy by any standard, but the fact that he spent more than eight years of his youth in prison makes his story exceptional. We'll discuss his journey to the legal profession, his 360 degree perspective of the criminal justice system, and his art. Dwayne Betts, it's a great honor and pleasure to have you on the podcast.

Welcome to At Liberty.

REGINALD DWAYNE BETTS
Yeah, my pleasure to be here. Thanks for having me.

EMERSON
So Dwayne, as I mentioned you're currently produced pursuing a Ph.D. at Yale Law School. But your path to the legal academy has been anything but typical.

Can you describe your earliest interactions with the criminal justice system?

DWAYNE
Yeah I guess that's a pretty straightforward question but the answer isn’t straightforward at all, because I think,everything is about where you start to tell your story.

So one might say my interaction with the legal system started when I first heard stories about friends of mine, peers of mine getting sent to Boy’s Village, which was the local Maryland juvenile detention center. And I might say that one of the things I remember hearing was the way that the place operated like a sort of gladiator school and that it was premised on like how violent you might be.

Or I could say it was high school, and having friends getting shot, having friends getting murdered, having friends and classmates get arrested, sometimes for those shootings. I could say it started the first time I heard about somebody carjacking a person. That was before high school. I might've been eleven years old then. The first time I heard about police brutality, I probably was 11, 12.

[2:02] I could say it was ninth grade when a friend of mine's brother attempted to carjack somebody and one of the people that was with him was shot by the police. You know, and even as I recount this, it’s weird because one) it’s sort of just a fraction of my interactions. Maybe a big fraction, but a fraction no less. But two) none of those things have anything exactly to do with me.

But I think they say something about trauma and about how everything is premised on when you begin collecting evidence. Because I know the question is signaled to say, in some ways, you know, I first became involved with the system back in 1996 when I carjacked somebody, which is true. You know, in 1996, I carjacked somebody with a friend of mine. I got caught the next day and was sentenced to nine years, served eight and a half. But that's the kind of thing that’s true, and the truth is, is only satisfying if if you aren't willing to think about everything else that both contributes to that but also contributes to that kind of thing not being an aberration in the lives of like a lot of young black boys.

EMERSON
No and that's exactly I think what I was trying to get at, was, you know -- Bryan Stevenson says we're more than the worst thing we ever did in our lives. But also, you know those things come with a legacy and a history and a background. And so can you tell a little bit more about what you were like as a kid? You talked about what you were exposed to and what kinds of things were going on around you, and when you first heard about these types of things.

But what were you like when you were absorbing these things?

DWAYNE
I want to say that I do not all the way remember, but that isn't necessarily true. I think I was like most 16 year olds, though, most 15 year olds. I was sort of obsessed with basketball, obsessed with books. I didn't necessarily have expectation, I didn't have the expectation that I would go to college. It was somewhat of a dream. But I think I was kind of typical, at least for my neighborhood.

[4:00] And I don't know. I think most people actually -- what it means to get locked up at 16 means that you’re forever mining your childhood to kind of figure out what the hell happened. I think most people don't really think too much about who they were 14 or 15 or 16, because you know most 14, 15, or 16 year olds are nothing, you know. I'm constantly like trying to figure out who I was then, but I have no real answer.

EMERSON
Well you're talking about the sort of mindset of a 14, 15, 16 year old and when I was reading your piece in The New York Times Magazine talking about your journey from prison to becoming an attorney, and you talked about your cellmate Markeese Turnage, it really resonated. You know, he's facing a lengthy sentence and you were both teenagers at the time. And I have I have a cousin who's, who's facing multiple decades in prison, Ollie Wayne Hawkins Jr. And so he, he got locked up for about 60 something years when he was 16, and he and I last saw each other we were about 14.

We seemed so similar at 14, but our lives have diverged so much since. And it occurred to me as I was preparing to speak with you that you're one of the few people who's sort of seen life from both of our shoes. I'm now an attorney, and he's in federal penitentiary in California. So thinking about what it means to be a 16-year-old -- either going about your business or facing lengthy time in prison -- I wonder when you think about your past, what do you say to your younger self? Or what do you suggest that I say or think about my cousin who's on that other side of that chasm?

DWAYNE
I think I hadn't thought about it that way. You know the reality is most of the people I talk to have no notion that the chasm actually exists.

And so, like, their understanding of it or awareness of it is kind of so theoretical. You know, just to imagine what it means to be an attorney and have somebody who you were close to locked up, I think it’s different. And for me it’s, you know, being an attorney, having people who I actually served time with talking to me about my being an attorney and talking with me about them being a prisoner.

[6:02] There are no good answers probably. That’s probably the sort of devastating thing about it all, especially when you talk about people doing decades. And it's so frustrating.

I mean I'm on the phone with the ACLU and I'd be remiss if I didn't mention this, because you mentioned Markeese.

When we were 17 and we were at Southampton Correctional Center in Virginia -- I don't know how we heard of the ACLU, but we were trying to figure out a way to get his time reduced. I thought the world was on my shoulders because I had this 9 year sentence, but my first cell partner had 35 years. Markeese was my second. He had like 62, something like that. But there’s guys all around us with these huge, lengthy numbers and a lot of them were 16 and 17.

And I remember writing the ACLU, and me and him worked on this letter. And we sent it to the ACLU, and we got a form letter back and they said that “we didn't work on this issue.” And what fucked me up is, you know, thinking about what do I say to somebody on the other end of the chasm, on the other end of the abyss, somebody that didn't need a rope to pull themselves out of whatever they were in.

You know, I think about what the ACLU said to us which was that we can't help, and I still to this day find it profoundly disappointing, because the only reason that I could have this conversation is because I went to Yale Law School. The only reason I could have this conversation is because I wrote multiple books. And it's so interesting when, when even Bryan Stevenson, when we say that we shouldn't judge people by the worst thing that they've done, I mean we actually have a habit, even the best among us of doing that if we say the first way you judge somebody is by the deciding if you have to listen to them.

I don't know what to say. I'm stuck, I'm constantly trying to figure out what to say. And ultimately what happens is I'm scrambling to find small ways to help people that I know. I wish I had some sort of grandiose scheme but really all it is, is writing parole letters for friends. It's going to the parole board to for people I did time with, not even necessarily people that I'm friends with, just like people I know that reached out and said, “Will you help?”

[8:10] And I say yes when I can. Shit, I say yes when I can't.

EMERSON
Yeah and I want to come back to the to the idea of the platform that you have now because of the books you've written and the places you've been more recently. But I think it was important to bring up the story you told about reaching out to the ACLU for help and, and not getting any. And I can only imagine how disappointing that must have been at the time. And what struck me is that, you know, I'm not a public defender, I'm not a criminal defense attorney, but I understand that one of the frustrations of living that life is that you, there are limits to what you can do. And I don't obviously know the specifics of why or for what reason they weren't able or willing to help you at that time, but I'm wondering if you're now working as a, as a clerk, as an attorney, in your clinical work, if that's given you a different perspective on that interaction or, or is it not really?

DWAYNE
Yeah, I mean, look it taught me a few things. In 1997, this is a decade before Graham, more than a decade before Graham. This is like a decade before Roper, before there’s really been a change in this eighth amendment jurisprudence around what kind of sentence a juvenile could get when tried as an adult.

In retrospect, it teaches me that we were onto something then. And had the ACLU listened to me then, or listened to us, that we might have been a part of a conversation that came to its fruition in 2005, when it was held that the death penalty was unconstitutional for juveniles. We literally sort of litigating these issues that I was thinking about in 1997 and my friends were thinking about in 1997 because we were suffering from the harm. So I mean, if it taught me one thing, it's we need better ways to listen to people who are suffering from the harm. And I have to say no to people sometimes, I mean, I'm usually saying no to strangers.

[9:59] I mean, if it taught me something about that, you can be honest with people. And sometimes honest is just, you know, we're not equipped to deal with this right now, and this is not the issue that we deal with, and we wish we could but you might go here, here, or here. And to say that they weren't resourced enough to do that. I don't know how to respond to the idea that they weren't resourced enough to give a thoughtful answer. Just because this is 1997 before emails, and I think that each of us gives, you know, a thoughtful two sentence answer to people dozens of times a day.

But anyway, in the grand scheme of things, I think it did teach me something. It taught me that if you want to have a voice in a conversation, then you got to have the expertise that demands that you can have that voice. And back then I didn't really think about it, but you know it’s like been a chip on my shoulder. I mean if nothing else, the ACLU gave me a chip on my shoulder.

EMERSON
Well, if it resulted in your amazing poetry that you're putting out into the world now then maybe there's some silver lining. But on behalf of the ACLU, certainly I regret that that was your experience.

I want to move on to talking about your life after you got out of prison. But one thing I did want to just touch on before we move forward in time is when you sort of discovered poetry and your love/talent for writing poetry.

I understand that was while you were in prison. Can you describe what that process was like in terms of you discovering that mode of expression?

DWAYNE
Yeah let me, let me say one more thing about the ACLU so it's not all criticism, even though it is.

EMERSON
No need to sugarcoat.

DWAYNE
The thing I appreciate that you just said -- because like usually when you talk to somebody, what they express is like, you know, “I'm sure they had a good reason.” And what you just said is like, “I regret that that happened,” which is to me far more meaningful, and I think far more representative of what I want the organization to be thinking about and that's the best of the organization.

And that's why we wrote the organization in the first place. But like for a long time when I interacted with folks from the ACLU, it was like really, really defensive and they needed to have a reason, right? Well sometimes, there is no good reason. There is no good reason that we can't cause the good in the world that we want to happen, happen, besides we just don't have enough people. We don't have enough resources. We don't have enough time.

We don't have enough power. But when it’s somebody suffering sometimes I think it’s just nice to say “I regret x.”

EMERSON
[12:14] What I'm hearing you say is that it's not just a matter of whether you can say yes or no. But it's about it's about giving people the respect of listening closely and responding honestly.

DWAYNE
Right. It’s a lot of people that’s guilty. And it's like, there’s not really much I could do. You got three murders and you got 89 years. You know, sometimes that's the situation. Sometimes there’s just not anything that you could do.

But for me a lot of this does relate to poetry because I was in the hole, I was 16, 17 and I got this book, The Black Poets. And you know, the real thing is I'm trying to get a sense of the world, I'm trying to give a sense of who I am, but I don't want that sense of being circumscribed by prison. And I don't know how to ask for more. And it’s not just in novels, because novels present a world per se, right?

But the poems present a intellectual space, a lyric space. It makes you like contemplate meaning in a way that, that novels don't necessarily do, right? And so I was reading both but reading poems were the first time that I really started contemplating what it meant to be me. Etheridge Knight, poem called “For Freckle Faced Gerald,” which is about a teenager who was locked up in prison and ends up getting raped. And it's this thing that I, one, I didn't know that you can make poetry out of something like that.

But two, I didn't know that my situation as somebody who was in prison as a juvenile -- I thought I was new. I thought that I was a part of the generation where they just started doing this, but I read that poem and I was like wait, they were doing this in the 60s. And so poetry also hit me to a way of educating myself and others, right? And something that was consumable in a minute or two. Because you know, you can educate people in novels too, and I got all kinds of… I learned a lot from reading novels, too. But I would learn things from reading one poem that others would put in 500 page books.

[14:12] So. So that’s how it started. And it’s persisted mainly because I started doing it when I ain’t had much. So, now that I got a little bit more I keep doing it.

EMERSON
Well and you talked about when you when you got out you were ill equipped in so many ways to deal with with your new reality. But poetry was a through line. Did you leave knowing that you wanted to become a poet or continue to be a poet.

DWAYNE
See I mean, that's the thing, in prison you don't know that being a poet is a thing. And maybe guys that know me think about being a poet as a thing now because I'm a contemporary writer. I've got books out now. But ‘97, I didn't know Cornelius Eady, Yusef Komunyakaa, Lucille Clifton, Sonia Sanchez. Like I was reading these folks, but I wasn't even really aware whether or not they were living or dead because I wasn't even processing them as, like, people. I was processing them as words.

So I didn't connect being a poet to making a living. I just connected being a poet to, like, being Dwayne. It was a part of whatever makes me me.

So I came home and I figured I would write. But I didn't think about that as like something you would study in school. I didn’t think about it as something people would pay me to do. And then that first summer, somebody paid me to do a poetry workshop and I thought wait a minute, I could get a little bit of money teaching. And I also never considered myself a teacher. And it just, you know, kept expanding from there.

EMERSON
Well just going into a little bit more detail about those first steps after you you got out of prison. You talked about all of the barriers that you faced — not just you, but the millions of people who have been incarcerated — and the challenges they face in terms of housing, in terms of employment, and in terms of education. And it struck me in reading your story how many things had to go right for you to overcome those barriers. Can you talk a little bit about the challenges, that you faced, but also how you were able to to find a way through?

DWAYNE
[16:10] Yeah, I mean a lot of that stuff I’m writing about in the book I'm doing now — both in Felon, which is a book of poems, but also in Coming Home, which is the book of prose — some of it I wrote about in my New York Times piece that came out in October. And the truth is, you know, you always want to thread the needle. One of the things is if you get a chance to tell your story that means a lot of things went right. But you want to thread the needle in which -- or at least I want to thread the needle and tell a story in which it’s not just some bootstraps story.

So it's hard to parse it out, but I will say that I benefited in some some serious ways. When I came home I was still relatively young. I was 24. I was kind of preserved because there’s no alcohol in prison and no drugs. Well there was drugs for some people, but I wasn't using drugs. I was like exercising a lot. You know, my mind was kind of clear. I was like relatively safe in prison. So whatever scars I have are the kind of scars that just come with doing time and being in the hole and just being locked up.

But there are sort of deeper darker wounds that some people have that I came home without that. And I was blessed with a good disposition and a sense that I had already sort of failed I guess. So I felt like I could only go up, whatever that might be. I was young enough that I could go to school. And I had a mom who I could live with. And so I’m in school, I got a job, but I'm not burdened with what it means like having to pay rent. And so it was just sort of these small things that helped me be able to sort of navigate the new world in a way that some others can’t. And a lot of it just had to do with timing. I mean I couldn’t imagine coming home now and having to figure out what a smartphone is. I learned how to use a smartphone at the same time as everybody else.

EMERSON
Yeah. Well I mean it's, as you said, it's always this tension between, you know, celebrating your accomplishments, but you are obviously an extraordinarily talented and brilliant person. And then, it's not as if it's necessarily quite a replicable model that other folks who are getting out should be able to just, you know, publish books of poetry and impress folks with hour-long discussions of literature. Have you thought about what sorts of things our society, our legal system, our education system need to do to provide opportunities to folks who aren't necessarily blessed in the certain ways that you were blessed?

DWAYNE
[18:31] Well, I mean, I think it starts with the inside, obviously. I think it starts with kind of, training programs, and I think it starts with -- you know, it's funny, though, because we think about reentry programs and what I think about is opportunities to think. You know,I think about literature, I think about the arts. I think about opportunities to do stuff with your hands. And it's so funny, you could do ten years in prison and come home and think that you have no experience but you might have been, working the same job for five or six years. That’s like, how is that not experience? Like, we aren't even taught to think about our time in prison as being the foundation of anything, except maybe more time in prison. So I would start with that.

People would start making different decisions if they imagined their time in prison had some relationships to their time home, But I mean it’s a whole list of things I would think of, starting with none of this is possible without relative safety. You know, none of this possible without good mental health care for people who need it while they’re incarcerated. And really nobody gets it while they’re incarcerated now unless they're profoundly mentally ill. Most people are afraid to ever go talk to their therapists while they're locked up because then they’ll just keep might get you put on a prison and you don't want to be on. Let's start with those basic fundamental things and then I will spread out. Think about the relationship between arts and growth, think about the relationship between actually thinking about the crimes that you've committed and trying to tell those crimes.

A lot of people I know only do that when it's time to go up for parole. And some people don't even do that when it’s time to go up for parole, because they never talked to somebody that emphasized the importance of that. And the importance of that is not about really just convincing the parole board that you should be free, but it’s seriously about thinking through who you are and what you did and how you’ve changed. Because everybody recognizes that they've changed. But I think a lot of people don't get to think through what that means because it’s, it’s hard work. You know, that, that figuring out where things went off the rails is hard work. But that hard work I think becomes the foundation for how you become somebody else if that's what you need to do.

[20:34] And for me it wasn't as if I needed to become somebody else. It was just I need to become somebody. And I could have become many different things in prison. But I think the work of literature, the work of trying to be a community member within prison -- you know, if you talk to people who knew me be in prison, they would say I was a community member and I was a part of a spot in ways that I never was when I was on the street. I think that a lot of the decisions I made had a lot to do with my personality.

EMERSON
Well it's it's fascinating to hear you think back on those times. And for those of our listeners who haven't read the memoir or the New York Times Magazine piece, I thoroughly recommend that they do so. But you ended up at community college in Prince George's County and then transferred to University of Maryland, and got your bachelor’s and I believe your master's from there as well.

DWAYNE
I got my bachelor's from the University of Maryland, but I got my Master's at roughly the same time from Warren Wilson College in Asheville, North Carolina.

EMERSON
Oh okay. And it seemed like you were sort of on the path to to poetry to potentially teaching poetry, but at some point along the way law school entered the picture and I think for for folks who've been in prison maybe it seems like an obvious question. Why would you have gone to law school? But given your love of poetry, what did push you towards law school?

DWAYNE
I couldn't get a job. I’d apply for jobs. I’d apply for teaching jobs and I couldn't even get an interview. And I had this fellowship at Harvard and I don’t know, I just figured I would go to law school, I met somebody there who was a poet or a fiction writer. She was in law school and I thought I could go to law school.

Kind of random honestly. But I've been doing juvenile justice work advocacy a long time. I figured if I was gonna be unemployed I should be an unemployed Harvard-trained attorney.

EMERSON
[22:20] Instead of Harvard, you went to the number one school. You ended up at Yale.

DWAYNE
Yeah, I ended up going to Yale and that was, I thought it was for some practical reasons, but it was also because Harvard didn't necessarily treat me, as if I had dignity during the admission process. I remember them asking me things like, you know, have you talked to your victim? How would your classmates respond to what you know about criminal law? And I know nothing about criminal law. So really, they wanted to know how will my classmates respond to the fact that I have felonies. And I'm not sure what they wanted to know whether or not I spoke to my victim.

But maybe I don't really blame Harvard as an institution or particularly the person that was responsible, the dean of admissions. Because we’re all figuring this out I guess. You know, how many people with felonies end up seeming like credible candidates to law school? But that's not because I was exceptional, that's because I think most people with records are told time and time again what they can't do, that it’s probably not many people who try.

I decided to go to law school just because it was a way not to have to pay my student loans for a minute. It also, it was an agency thing, too. I still remember the conversations around Graham in 2010. And just feeling like, what would the world look like if I had a better hand and shaping some of these strategies? What would my friends lives look like if I had the ability to, like make them the center of some of this stuff, like if their case was the very thematic case and not this other case? So I decided to go to law school.

EMERSON
Well I think if anything illustrates the amazing sort of dichotomy and tension in the story, it's the fact that you couldn't get a job because you were a felon and then ended up at the best law school in the world.

DWAYNE
I know right. It seems like I'm lying.

EMERSON
What you talked about in terms of the admissions process to law school also resonates with what you faced after you had finished law school and taken the bar. And then had to confront what's called the character and fitness stage of the bar admission process. Do you want to just say a bit about how, how you had to overcome that barrier?

DWAYNE
Yeah that was real but I don't want to overstate it. I mean look, first I think you just expect not to have to deal with it or you expect to have to deal with it gracefully.

But again people have to deal with this stuff. And institutions, they haven't necessarily thought through how to deal with it. So I get this form letter back, you know, after I passed the bar. And it’s just like, we haven't made a decision on whether or not you'll be admitted. It said that we need to look further into your application basically. So it wasn't a no, but I knew I wouldn't have gotten had I not got locked up. And it was frustrating because, you know, that was damn near 20 years ago by that point. Shit I think it was 20 years ago at that point. And so I just wondered, just you know, it just felt like you always running from your past. But it's always chasing you, and the past is quicker than the present.

[25:08] And so it was a little devastating. And at the same time it felt like the thing is man, you do all that time in prison, you rob somebody. You kind of wonder what are these things that's available to the rest of the world you have a right to have? So you know, part of it was frustrating ,and part of it was like, what kind of world do I live in? But a part of me felt like, I did rob somebody and so I, I'm not really going to just complain because I got to go through this process. It’s almost relentless, the way in which you move back, at least the way in which I move back and forth between feeling a huge amount of resentment towards the system and then sort of knowing that it was going to work out and that I was probably overdoing it, but then feeling resentment again.

We talk about the criminal justice system a lot but we don't really talk about what it means to have committed certain crimes, and in fact it's not even a part of our sort of larger public psyche. You know, you’ll read a book or watch a movie and it will have a trope of like, what does it mean to kill somebody. And you’ll always have characters grappling with that. But we don't have people grappling with what it means to just rob somebody and I think that carries the same kind of impact. Or what does that mean to just sell drugs.

I mean I think we still talk about it in a way that suggests that these things don't, like, sit on your heart. And um, and the truth is if they don't, then no wonder we need prison. Because we need prison to make that shit matter, right? If we can't seriously say that I assaulted this person and it haunts me, I beat somebody up and it haunts me, like if those things don't ever matter to folks, that's why we need prison, because we need prison to make the way people are in pain and suffer matter. So I don’t know. I think about how I responded to that whole piece, maybe part of me is okay with it because I don't want to pretend like what I did didn't matter. And I also don't want to pretend like I'm the one who should say that enough is enough.

EMERSON
[27:03] Well maybe we can turn now to the your current work. What's your Ph.D. topic?

DWAYNE
I mean it's criminal law. It's really administrative law. Honestly I'm figuring it out. But I think what I'm seriously interested in -- and you just got your obsessions -- and I'm interested in the way that Graham v. Florida and Montgomery v. Louisiana, Miller v. Alabama, how all of those cases, the cases of, like, what can you do to a juvenile who commits a crime. All those things sort of ask one what kind of break do you get. I think it's really clear that we give people a break who’re young when they commit crimes. And then for me, those cases made administrative law really important. Parole, clemency, things like that. So I'm interested in thinking through what it means that clemency and parole now have a outsize importance compared to the import that it had half a dozen years ago, a dozen years ago.

EMERSON
Well I don't think many law school Ph.D. theses are going to be as eagerly anticipated as yours is, so we look forward --

DWAYNE
Yeah, I doubt that. I appreciate it though. I don't think anybody who's writing a dissertation in any subject is eagerly awaited. I mean the huge challenge is like, you know, you want to do something, you want to kind of write something that matters. But at the same time, it's just like being a lawyer. You want somebody to be free, but you got to write a motion that goes through the procedure. You got to walk through the technicalities. You got to pay attention to filing deadlines.

Sometimes the necessary steps to get you where you want to go mean that sometimes you got to do things that not as many people care about as, as you might want. And that's kind of how I feel about legal scholarship. ain’t nobody checking for legal scholarship. Maybe that’s why it’s a challenge to me. You know, how to make some legal scholarship funky enough that it’ll get read by my mom or my aunt or, you know, somebody that doesn’t have a law degree, somebody in prison. It’s a challenge.

EMERSON
[28:58] Well if anybody can do it I think you're well-placed. But you're also doing a clerkship at the same time, as if that was not enough. And this sort of, as I alluded to, gives you really the 360-degree view of the system, because you've been a client, you've been a prisoner, you've been an attorney, and now you're seeing behind the scenes of what it's like to be in the judge's chamber. What has that perspective given you?

DWAYNE
Yeah, I fired a private attorney. I declined representation from a public defender. I got another private attorney. I was just one of the dudes who’s like, I want a paid lawyer. I guess I thought public defenders worked for free. And I hate people who talk trash about public defenders now -- especially when they’re grown. I cut myself some slack, because I was, like,16,17. But I won't even name the number of, like, so-called spokespersons for criminal justice reform who talk trash about public defenders.

Anyway, and they do it in states that have really good public defense units, too. It is 360. I think working for a judge give you a different perspective and working for a federal judge gives you a different perspective, both about how hard it is to always have to say no for procedural reasons and also how ugly some of the cases are. People just don't spend time with how painful some of this stuff is.

And also for me how, like, the law is pervasive -- it's not just criminal law, but it's also, you know, civil law. It’s also somebody suing somebody because they got in a car accident. And some of the stuff is frivolous and some of the stuff is not. But it's just kind of, wow that we got this thing, maybe it’s humanity's greatest invention because even when it’s at its most absurd -- it seems to have an order that we respect. And that’s more than we could say for, like, kindness.

EMERSON
[30:38] Well, and you have a third job, which is a published poet. And I want to highlight that you have a new show coming up at PS1 MoMA with Titus Kaphar called “Redaction.” Can you talk a little bit about your newest project?

DWAYNE
Yeah, that’s going to be interesting. You know, you get obsessions and you just push through them. But I would say that me and Titus are friends, and we’re friends because, we live in New Haven, we’re both fathers, coming from similar communities, community college to Yale, and our own different routes, you know. I coach my son’s basketball team -- both my sons’ basketball teams, actually -- and we just went undefeated. One of them went undefeated, and then the other season, we’re still playing. But that has nothing to do with the interview, but I did just want to say…

EMERSON
I’m not mad, I got two little boys myself. Plug away.

DWAYNE
Yeah, you know, I mean, because honestly, that's the work, too. how much work goes into being a father and then being a member of a community. You know, coaching basketball means that you you really are a member of community. But the project that we're doing is, I took some lawsuits written by the Civil Rights Corps against different locales -- one was a habeas in San Francisco, but the other ones were civil suits filed for just locking people up because they couldn't afford to take bail, or because they couldn't afford to pay their traffic tickets.

And I felt like these were really important cases and they were big wins, but I ain’t trying to read a 65-page complaint by knowing nobody else is trying to read a 65-page complaint. So I thought, what if I got rid of what was superfluous? And usually they we think about redaction as getting rid of what was too top secret, too privileged for all eyes. I felt like I wanted to think about redaction as a way of getting rid of the superfluous in a lawsuit, so that what you could see was what really captured the grit and anger and the frustration and audacity of what these folks are grappling with. And so Titus did etchings of people who, you know, suffered under bail conditions and he did it modeled after the mugshot. Because, you know, a lot of times this mugshot becomes your calling card to the world, but we wanted to create something that was stark and beautiful and humane.

The mugshot is not the world looking at me and judging me. This image is me looking out at the world and saying something about how fucked up this thing is that we've been experiencing. And so we created a series of prints. And the prints include the poems -- the redacted poems -- that are silkscreen on paper and etchings on paper.

[33:03] Titus did a number of big pieces, a couple big pieces. And I had some paper made from prison material, T-shirts, towels, things like that. Some friends of mine sent me their sweatpants, sweatshirts, long johns. And it was kind of crazy, you know, because they’d send me this stuff and then we’d start talking about it, and they would tell me how they didn't realize that that stuff had sentimental value. But they'd been wearing it for years and they sent it to me so I could make art out of it. And in some ways it's the same thing, you know. Turning our life and our suffering into art. But in some ways it’s the same thing as writing that letter to the ACLU. I produce this stuff and the whole thing is like, can you get somebody to listen.

And Markeese does have an attorney, you know, now. So it all worked out in the sense that, that momastory from the ACLU when I was first just a tibo and all of it. When I was trying to, applying to law school, his sister found me on Facebook. And then she was like, “I think you know my brother.” I didn't know what to say. But I was trying to figure out, and what happened was he actually sent me the letter that we wrote, and he didn't even realize I was applying to law school. He just sent me the letter like, “Yo, remember this?” And I hadn't talked to him in probably 12, 13 years, something like that. So he sent me the letter and, and I get it, and I realize I know exactly what I wanted to write. And I wrote about it in law school, and the whole time I was in law school I was really just trying to figure out how to get him an attorney. I mean, I was trying to figure out how to be a lawyer. But you know, getting him an attorney was always in the back of my head, too.

In some ways, you know, the redaction project, my poetry, Titus’ etchings, his poetry, his paintings, all of this is about trying to figure out how to make people's lives matter, and in ways that deal with social justice, but in ways that deal with letting people just be people and be heard. And sometimes it works.

EMERSON
It's an amazing idea flipping the script on the redaction. And I've seen a few of the images that Titus put together and they're extraordinary. So we really look forward to the exhibit opening at P.S.1 MOMA; I think it's on March 31. So we encourage all of our listeners to come check it out. As I said your life story has been anything but typical and, or predictable. So what are you looking forward to next?

DWAYNE
[35:23] Finish clerking, write this next book. I got some articles for the New Times Magazine I'm working on. My poetry book Felon comes out in October. I mean I keep moving from day to day I think the interesting thing about it is that I've never had a plan necessarily and the challenging thing about is that I've never had a plan. Just wanted to be somebody.

EMERSON
Well, we really look forward to having you back once the new book is out. And thanks again for taking the time to speak with us today.

DWAYNE
Yeah man, I appreciate it. That was a good qu-- I mean you know, all the questions were good, but you got me thinking really what do I say. Because I actually haven't thought about it. What do I say to my friends. I mean we talk about it, but they do a better job at telling me what it means than I do telling them. So I'm gonna think about that a little bit more. I’ll have a better answer next time we talk.

EMERSON
Alright, sounds good. Thank you very much, bruh.

DWAYNE
Alright y’all take care.

EMERSON
That's it for this week's show. If you appreciated this conversation, please be sure to subscribe to At Liberty, rate us, and tweet @ACLU with any feedback. We'll be sure to read every message. Till next week. Peace.

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