Poetry, Prison, and the Pandemic (ep. 98)

May 7, 2020
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Our guest today is Reginald Dwayne Betts, a poet, memoirist, and legal scholar. Loyal listeners will remember our conversation from March of 2019. The episode was called “A Poet Gives a 360 Degree View of The Criminal Legal System,” and we talked about Dwayne’s journey from a teenage defendant sentenced to 9 years in prison to a Yale Law School graduate and published poet. A lot has happened since we last spoke. Dwayne published a new book of poetry called Felon and had an exhibit at P.S. 1 MoMA with painter Titus Kaphar called Redaction. If that wasn't enough, Dwayne also completed a clerkship with a federal judge and is pursuing a PhD in law at Yale. And of course, this episode is being recorded months into a global pandemic, that poses particular risks for people in detention. Today we’ll discuss the impact COVID-19 is having on incarcerated people, what we should do to support the thousands of people who are getting out of detention as a result of the efforts by the ACLU and others, and how art can help us get through these uncertain times. 

Listen to our first episode with Reginald Dwayne Betts: https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/a-poet-gives-a-360-degree-view-of-the-criminal-justice-system/id1396174920?i=1000432665627.

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EMERSON
From the ACLU, this is At Liberty. I'm Emerson Sykes, a staff attorney here at the ACLU and your host.

Today's episode is one I've been looking forward to for quite a while. Our guest is Reginald Dwayne Betts, a poet, memoirist, and legal scholar. Loyal listeners will remember our conversation from March of 2019 and I highly recommend that deep cut from the At Liberty archive. The episode was called “A Poet Gives a 360 Degree View of The Criminal Legal System,” and we talked about Dwayne’s journey from a teenage defendant sentenced to nine years in prison to a Yale Law School graduate and published poet. A lot has happened since we last spoke. Dwayne published a new book of poetry called Felon and had an exhibit at P.S. 1 MoMA with painter Titus Kafar called Redaction. If that wasn't enough, Dwayne also completed a clerkship with a federal judge and is pursuing a PhD in law at Yale. And of course, this episode is being recorded months into a global pandemic that poses particular risks for people in detention. Today we’ll discuss the impact COVID-19 is having on incarcerated people, what we should do to support the thousands of people who are getting out of detention as a result of the efforts by the ACLU and others, and how art can help us get through these uncertain times.

Dwayne, thanks very much for coming back to the podcast.

DWAYNE
[00:01:36] Yeah nah man it’s my pleasure, thanks for having me.

EMERSON
[00:01:39] Well, there's a lot to cover. But I wanted to start with a reading from your book of poetry, Felon, which came out late in 2019. Congratulations.

DWAYNE
Appreciate it.

EMERSON
But as I mentioned, we've got thousands, literally thousands of people who have been let out of prison. It's not nearly enough. But as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and the very likely if not certain outcome of having that kind of an outbreak in a prison facility, lots and lots of people have been trying to get folks out and about thousands of people have already been let out. So reentry is a primary issue on a lot of people's minds. So this piece that I wanted to start with is called “Essay on Reentry.”

DWAYNE
It echoes the whole point about reentry in a sense that, you know, a lot of what a word like felon does and a lot of what incarceration does is attempt to erase people and reduce people to a moment of their lives. And so when you come home and you’re constantly stuck in that moment and you're really trying to work through it, not just the outside pressure, but pressure you create internally trying to work through your life so that you could move past that moment. And this poem contemplates that.

Essay on Reentry.

[00:02:51] Of prison, no one tells you the time will steal your memories—until there's nothing left but strip searches & the hole & fights & hidden shanks & the spades games. You come home & become a parade of confessions that leave you drowning, lost recounting the disappeared years. You say fuck this world where background checks, like your fingerprints, announce the crime. Where so much of who you are betrays guilt older than you: your pops, uncles, a brother, two cousins & enough childhood friends for a game of throwback—all learned absurdity from shackles. But we wear the mask that grins and lies. Why pretend these words don't seize our breath? Prisoner, inmate, felon, convict.

[00:03:44] Nothing can be denied. Not the gun that delivered you to that place where you witnessed the images that won't let you go. Catfish learning to subtract, his eyes a heron-slurred mess; Blue-Black doing backflips in state boots; the D.C. kid that killed his cellmate. Jesus. Barely older than you, he had on one of the white undershirts made by other men in prison, boxers, socks that slouched, shackles gripping his shins, damn near naked. Life waiting.

[00:04:24] Outside your cell, you can see them wheel a dead man down the way. The pistol pressed against a stranger's temple gave you that early morning. And now boxes checked have become your North Star, fillip, catalyst to despair. Death by prisoner scratch. Tell me what name for this thing that haunts, this thing we become.

EMERSON
[00:04:52] Thank you. Thank you very much for writing that poem, but also for reading it for us today. I mean, the poem is so, so powerful and paints such a deep and complicated picture of what it's like to face that moment. And I wonder what comes to your mind when you read about, you know, as I said, obviously we need to get everybody out. But the efforts that many folks have successfully had to get lots of folks, especially who are in pretrial detention. There's efforts going on in federal courts, in state courts with ICE detention and other venues. But basically there's a lot of folks getting out of detention right now and facing these questions on an individual basis. So I wonder what comes to your mind when you hear about these decarceration efforts?

DWAYNE
[00:05:39] I think maybe it's been revelatory in a couple of ways. So in one sense, you realize that people throw around words like abolition. Right. And it's theoretical and in some ways it's practical and folks are extremely committed. But it makes, like this moment makes me think about a sort of gap that was there. Like, cause what does it mean to make efforts urgent and what does it mean to think about abolition in a way that people think about it when their families are incarcerated?

[00:06:11] So I think what this moment makes me think about on one level is how we might think about adding some umph to decarceration efforts because this has forced people to strategize about, wait a minute, what can we change right now? And I don't know, man for me, I guess the last thing I'll say is I also think about everybody that’s inside now who, you know, the threat that incarceration poses is far more salient to the public. It was always salient to them. But it now is like far more salient to the public. And I think people inside know that the danger of prison has been reaffirmed. Right. And so much of at least from my perspective, I always thought the danger of prison as a prisoner was remaining safe in terms of like not getting banked by the guards, in terms of not getting like in conflict on the yard because all of that conflict escalates a serious violence. Right. Immediately. But now I think there's a heightened awareness from people on the inside that the primary threat has always been incarceration. And I think that's one of those things, at least for me, when I was doing time. I didn't hold it in the same way. You know, I think I was doing my bid and I wasn't thinking about the primary threat being incarceration. You know, you had to have 30, 40 years been down for 15, 20 years. You had to start aging in prison. I think back when I was doing time to really understand that the threat was incarceration. And I think now everybody gets it on inside and outside that the threat is incarceration itself.

EMERSON
[00:07:51] Well something clearly is different. Right. Now the pandemic has changed the situation. And I mean, I have to say that the last conversation that we had, I was talking about my cousin who was locked up in San Diego, I think based on that conversation, I've actually really built that link in a way that I hadn't been able to before. So he wrote to me just last week about how scared people are in prison of this threat and knowing full well that once it comes in it's going to really lay a lot of people down. And he said that he, you know, the social distance, the physical distancing is just not possible. Right. Like, you know, it’s just not happening.

DWAYNE
Yeah no it’s not.

EMERSON
He's got a cellmate. Like the only thing that's happening is less movement. Right. There's no doubt. People are trying to watch stuff. But I'm wondering, I know that you're in contact with a lot of people who are incarcerated. And I wonder what you're hearing in terms of how people are feeling about this particular new threat around the pandemic.

DWAYNE
[00:08:52] I think the point is like the same thing your cousins said, you know, like now it used to be it used to be like, can I, can I survive this time?

EMERSON
Right.

DWAYNE
And now it’s, will time get cut short only because of the pandemic?

[00:09:04] And, you know, I mean, and it’s weird though, because it's almost sort of like. Some places have handled it horribly. They've handled it horribly, you know, thinking about who should be released. I'm saying most everybody should be released. I'm saying that, you know, we have this has rejiggered some of the metrics. Right. So now you have people being released who just wouldn't have been released three, four months ago. But I'm saying that we need to push it even harder. And I think people inside recognize that even more. And I think fear is just reality. And I just had to backup and be like, what am I doing for the people who walk the yard with me?

EMERSON
Right.

DWAYNE
[00:09:40] And be like, I hate to say this, right. But if I expend energy on some kind of organizing effort, on some kind of effort for people that I don't know. And then I get a call and it's like my homeboy is in medical solitary because of suspicion of COVID, and he ain't got a clemency petition on the mayor's desk in front of the parole board, that in some way I kind of fundamentally failed. And I think what I've come to realize and, you know, I always use the push back against the people who, I still push back a little bit against, you know, the idea that the people who are closest to the problem are closest to the solution. I mean, I think that's true. Sometimes people close to the problem are just closest to the problem.

EMERSON
[00:10:22] Well, it brings to mind one of the legal issues that you brought up last time we spoke, and I think it's sort of a focus of your scholarship, which is the intersection between criminal law and administrative law. You know now it's a matter of this parole and clemency question and everything is centering around that. And all the work in getting people out is now, you know, it's largely administrative law. There's no criminal law that's being reformed. So I'm curious how that sort of line of research is going and whether that seems so pertinent to the current situation.

DWAYNE
[00:10:56] Yeah, I will say that the other point though is sort of, especially the feds, but the feds and the states is you always got that sort of sentence modification route. And what I've come to realize really is that, you know, people in prison and maybe even people on the outside say we always thought about a sentence modification as not a last resort, but maybe as a back door way to get in front of a judge as an alternative to the parole board. I know Virginia parole law because I've represented people in Virginia parole because I did time with people in Virginia, because I was in Virginia waiting for parole to return. And you see a moment like this, and in Virginia to get these two specific laws. So one is Fishback, and Fishback was a law to say that back in like ’94 when they got rid of parole, they didn't tell juries that parole no longer existed. So you had this time period where juries were still sentencing people as if parole existed. So they passed a law called Fishback, which allows those folks to now be eligible for parole.

I mean, one question is, why do we assume that judges weren't also still sentencing people as if parole existed? And then another question is, how can you actually fucking figure that out anyway? Right. But in terms of an immediate step before you bring parole back, Fishback became a mechanism to get more people parole. So that just passed. That was supposed to go into play in July along with another bill that brought back parole for people who got convicted of crimes committed before the age 18. And so that is still scheduled to come back in July. But Fishback is pushed earlier because of COVID. And so, again, it does revitalize this sort of importance of parole mechanisms and so like Virginia is not New York. In New York, they got robust US parole proceedings. Right.

[00:12:36] Everything's recorded. And they have a mechanism with parole as administrative law basically does kind of become as robust as what we would consider a criminal process, because you can go back in front of a judge. You can appeal it. You can create a record. And they actually do have a body of parole law. But that notwithstanding, now all of a sudden we could think through one, how to help people become successful at the parole board. Right.

EMERSON
Right.

DWAYNE
How to pay families for this process. How to train attorneys. I do think this moment makes things like parole—no, what this moment does is make a larger swath of the general public and advocacy community aware of what families were already struggling to do on the ground.

[00:13:26] I did a call to do a little bit of training on how to go through it. And what the process looks like. And you know, the questions were framed, every single question. My brother is locked up and I've been doing this to figure out how to get him out. My son is locked up and I've been doing this to figure out how to get him out. My cousin is locked up, which is a completely different training than in a lot of times what we hear.

EMERSON
[00:13:51] No, it's an important point. And I mean, it gets to the idea of, these have been concerned and so much of the advocacy now is around prison conditions, not just the sort of existence or or release, you know, not just being in or out, but also the conditions within these facilities.

Well, I do want to come back to the poetry and talk about a project that you did. You mentioned that the cover art for Felon is done by Titus. But you guys also did an exhibit called Redaction, which was super powerful. I went with my whole family to P.S. 1 MoMA. And basically it has these paintings by Titus. But then also you did this amazing thing using redactions. So can you just explain what that project was? And then I want to hear one of those poems.

DWAYNE
[00:14:37] So, you know, Titus is my man, and one of the things that we were thinking about and I should say that we're friends and our friendship, you know, first it's like being fathers, being artists. And we got a lot of things in common. So we were kind of just thinking, how might we create some art together. And it ain't easy. Cause like, it can't be hokey, you know. And then it's sort of like, well, the words can’t overpower the image but the images can’t overpower the word or anything. And then one way to do that is how do you make the actual words become an image, too? And I started thinking redaction, and I started thinking specifically about how do you take a lawsuit and turn it into poetry.

[00:15:18] Right. And I'm on a board of the Civil Rights Corps. And they had been challenging mass incarceration in a number of different ways. And one of the ways was to file lawsuits against cities and localities for their practices around money bail, essentially they had people locked up because they couldn't afford to pay bail or because they owe small fines and fees. Now their complaints are strong. I mean, their complaints are right in this fight at its essence. Let me tell you what's really going on. And I'm a try my best to reduce the kind of corners I cut that legalise requires.

[00:15:52] You know, you do this class action lawsuit, you representing 60, 70 people. You represent a hundred people. Whatever, you do this class action lawsuit and the complaint is not really comprehensible by the people who you represent.

EMERSON
Right.

DWAYNE
I don't even want to read the complaint. You know, it's a job for me to read the complaint. And so I know that it's a job for like most of the people who are being represented, even if they are lawyers or doctors or whatever, even if they are educated, even if they are readers. And I thought, what would it mean if I tried to strip that away and leave nothing but the poetry? And also I thought I would be creating these images too, between the redacted text and the words that exist. So you could see it and you could read it in multiple ways. And then, you know, it would interact with what Titus was doing, and he was doing his portraits that came from mug shots that also had they were like one etching. And then another etching laid on top of it. So you had to look closely to examine the face that was in front of you. And then realized it was two faces. Because so much of what incarceration does is reduce you to a trope, it gives you opportunity not to look closely at somebody. So that's all of this sort of project itself, was trying to create multiple ways to add to the sort of, you know, we are multitudes.

[00:17:11] And what I did was I took the complaint and I've reduced it so it might’ve been 60 pages and I would drop it down to four and keeping all the words in the same order. But I would just drop words and I would just redact lines and create a poem.

So In Missouri.

In Missouri et al v. The City of Ferguson, the Plaintiffs people jailed by the City the City kept a human in its jail the person pleaded poverty held indefinitely threatened abused left to languish frightened family members could buy their freedom impoverished cannot endure grotesque treatment overcrowded cells denied toothbrushes toothpaste soap subjected to the stench of excrement and refuse surrounded by walls smeared with mucus and blood for days and weeks bodies cover the entire cell floor untreated illnesses infections in open wounds days weeks filthy bodies huddle in cold a single thin blanket they lose weight they suffer they must listen to the screams they sit without natural light when they will be allowed to leave these physical abuses jail guards taunt people jail guards laugh humiliate them shivering women forced to share blankets officers shout stanky ass dykes dirty whores.

City officials employees built a scheme designed to brutalize to punish to profit. The architect the City of Ferguson the City of Ferguson the rest of the Saint Louis modern debtors prison the City of Ferguson devastated the City's poor trapping them in debts extortion and cruel jailings. The treatment reveals systematic illegality. The city has a a Dickensian system that violates the most vulnerable the City of Ferguson the City's conduct is unlawful It has been the policy to jail people the practice to jail indigent the practice to hold prisoners indefinitely the practice to issue invalid warrants to threaten to hold arrestees in jail arbitrarily to confine people in grotesque dangerous and inhumane conditions a Kafkaesque journey a lawless and labyrinthine scheme of perpetual debt.

EMERSON
[00:19:51] Thank you very much. And so look, this is talking about Ferguson, it’s talking about essentially the debtors prisons that they were run in in Ferguson, Missouri. And it strikes me that in the midst of the crisis, we got to figure out how to keep our eye on the ball. And you know, we have to be flexible, we have to be nimble, we have to be reactive. But we also got to keep in mind sort of what's fundamentally important. So I wonder, when you look at sort of the sentiments that were expressed in a poem like In Missouri, which was written a year or more ago. Right. And then the predicament that we're in now, what kind of? Does that feel like a whole different world or are the questions and answers still the same?

DWAYNE
[00:20:34] I think in some ways the questions and answers are still the same, but we always need it. People always say, well, look, we can't do this. And in fact, certain actors were like, we can't play that role.

I took this position as commissioner on the Criminal Justice Commission here in Connecticut and the Criminal Justice Commission, we hired prosecutors. So we hired a state's attorney. We hired a chief state's attorney and we hired a line prosecutors. You got to understand that I got three felonies, man. I mean, I’m in a room like hiring prosecutors, it seems like antithetical to my existence. Right?

[00:21:09] But part of it is to be like who is in a room that’s making sure that these actors are thinking differently about their role and who is in a room to better understand what's going on in the room is pernicious. If what’s going on in the room is antithetical to justice to understand it, because you know that the real thing is like criminal law is complicated. Incarceration becomes a stopgap measure. They end up being a stopgap measure. It should force us as creative thinkers, as people who want to see less incarceration to address that problem and not just pay lip service to it. Right. And even with that, though, you know, you got to also know that, like, those are the kind of cases that fully disrupt people's lives, too.

[00:21:51] And I hope that later we are saying, well, it was always a pandemic, incarceration is a pandemic. And I remember what you did in the middle of that crisis, and I demand and require your office to keep doing it. Right. Like you were locking people up because they had a $500 bond before the crisis. And then you told a story about making sure that somebody got out by lowering that bond and then finding out that despite the bond being lower, they still weren't released. It was because they had warrants and the warrants were like failed to appear. You canceled out those warrants so that that person could be free. Well, I need you to do that five months from now. Right. I need you to recognize that it is always a crisis. And so I think about my role as a commissioner is this. In some ways we witnessed some of that. And in some ways, you know, push some of it.

[00:22:45] And being in this role really does allow me to think about how prosecutors think of themselves as actors. And I've been impressed in some ways about the way in which some prosecutors and also some Department of Corrections D.O.C. actors, I've been involved with D.O.C. a lot trying to think about how to get more literature into the system, Felon and other stuff. Right. That people are mitton now that they have family members that have been system involved because in the past they wouldn't have admitted that, they would like, if I say that I might not get this job or something or I'm at least not releasing it publicly. So I've kind of been impressed by the prosecutors being willing to admit that kind of thing on the record and public forums. That has been really impressive. And I think that that allows us to have more leverage in terms of saying, you know what this is and when and when you were forced to behave differently because of a pandemic, you behave differently. Let's make different behavior a policy now.

EMERSON
[00:23:39] Yeah. Well, you've talked about your role as a poet. You talked about your role as a legal scholar. You talked about your role as a member of this board. But the other roles that you hold that we talked about last time, was a teacher, a parent, a coach and a community member and, you know, all of our lives have been quite different over the last month or so with shelter in place orders. And I'm wondering for you, those other roles, those important sort of community engagements and as I said, teacher, parent, how is that how is that finding you right now?

DWAYNE
[00:24:13] Teacher parent and like spouse. You know, I mean, that's that's cool, I mean, I struggle. It’s like being a parent twenty five hours a day. I went on a bike ride this morning. I still feel like it's so funny, I feel I shouldn't say it. But it felt like so much of life is so good. I guess, balance. And when I'm riding that bike, man. It allows me to get the satisfaction of which I'm like, leave it, you know. And then I'm consciously making this decision to, like, turn around and like, right now, it's time to come back. And you think about hunting and you think of fishing and you think about hiking and all these sort of ways in which we try to engage with the natural world. That gives us the opportunity to reaffirm our commitment to come back to the world.

[00:24:57] You know, being a community member is a bit more challenging because it is really figuring out how to operate in this space where things are so different. And some of it is just like me writing Amazon reviews for books that I love. You know, some of it is like spending time talking about the kind of writing and the kind of work that I cherish and like I offered to do a poetry workshop with my son's class earlier today and, you know, figuring out how to do things like that. So I think it is a struggle, I mean, a lot of it doesn't feel like prison.

[00:25:26] You know, sheltering in place is not like, you know, standing in a cell, but it is a little bit because like the world has so many distractions that you don't have to look at somebody. And sheltering in place forces you to look at the people who you live close to. And if you live alone, you end up looking in a mirror like you know, but you really have to think about how to spend time with those people who you chose to spend time with. And I'm actually pretty happy and grateful that I really like the people who are in my family.

EMERSON
[00:25:55] Yeah. I mean, my kids are likely to come back any minute now and interrupt this interview. But I'm glad to hear that you're able to get out, that you are able to stay sane, that you're in a loving household. I'm thankful to be similarly occupied, or similarly situated. But as you said, that's not true for everybody.

DWAYNE
[00:26:12] I mean, it's not, you know, but it's cool because there's some ways. I mean, it's not cool that it's not true for others. But I think it's another powerful thing in it. Now, we could contemplate like how do we work with this? How does this become a part of the fabric of this work that we do? And you talked about reentry. The conversation started with reentry, well really reentry is how do you make sure that people have those kinds of loving communities and actually rethinking space.

EMERSON
[00:26:36] Well, from the work perspective, I mean, you were still doing your book tour. And I know for a lot of artists, a lot of poets, bookstores are closed, a lot of stuff is getting canceled. This was actually supposed to be a live event we were going to do in New Haven.

DWAYNE
Right.

EMERSON
I'm wondering from the perspective of a poet and artist, how much this disruption has affected you?

DWAYNE
[00:26:56] It ain’t easy man, you know, bookstores shutting down, not having any gigs. But I think it's forced me. I mean, I've been working on a solo show, and so it's forced me to really dig into that, brought a couple of pieces, you know. But it's forced me to think seriously about how to make art have value when it's not transactional. Because right now it's not transactional. And if that's all that it was about, it can't exist right now. So it forced me to think of that. But it's also it's listener think a little bit about when times are better. How do I define audience? How do I think about what audience is, and that too isn't easy. Most book man, the print run is a thousand books. It's not like people have a print run of a hundred thousand books and we don't sell out at those thousand books. And so this moment really makes me seriously think about how do we support our own?

[00:27:49] You know, t's like how do we have a presence in a world we say to things that we love? And I'm one that is quick to tell you about the stuff that I hate just because it's so much easier. So like, you know, like how do we make room to talk about things that we love? And I've been trying to do that, you know, like The Other Americans by Laila lalami, it's like a fantastic novel. And you don't think about it as a novel that’s about criminal justice issues. But it is, right, and it doesn't answer the questions the way we want, but it forces us to think through it. And I think that's where we need art to do. Art needs to help us see each other more fully and give us a pathway to make that fullness mean something, more evidence for why we shouldn't hurt each other more.

EMERSON
[00:28:27] Well I want to close with a lightning round, a few quick questions. All right. So one is you're very active on Twitter. One time you said that Marshawn Lynch is your favorite black man in America. I want to hear about why.

DWAYNE
[00:28:41] My man is just recklessly honest, man. You know, he ran to Oakland right now giving out masks. You know, giving out masks. The police are busting down folks for not having a mask in public and he’s like the problem. Let me figure out how to solve it. I just like his reckless kind of honesty and I appreciate it.

EMERSON
For those who don't know, sorry, for the non-sports fans. Marshawn Lynch, NFL running back. Oakland legend known for being, as he says about that business, about that action. About that about that action.

Okay. Next one. You already mentioned one book, the Leila Lilani book, but what’s another recommended reading for people who are sheltering in place and have the time?

DWAYNE
[00:29:27] I just read Brothers and Keepers again by John Edgar Wideman. And I suggest that. It was written in 1984. His brother got felony murder. And what's so great about the book is it's basically a conversation between the two brothers. You hear both of their voices. But this book is written before mass incarceration is a term. So reading it. And it's also not a prison memoir, it’s both sides, it’s the brother, John talking about going in to see his brother. It's his brother talking to John. And it didn't focus on like the violence. And all of that about prison, it’s something different, it’s two brothers trying to figure out who they are and explain it to each other. While living within a structure that is horrendous. and reading somebody's work that's thinking about how messed up incarceration is, that predates this kind of conversation we have now. I think it is pretty revelatory. So I would say check that out. The new edition is coming out in a few months. Scribner is reissuing the book. Robert is out now, which is a great reason to reread the book. If things work out, me and Mitchell Jackson, we wrote the introduction for it, and so did Robert and this is it. It's a powerful book to read in this moment, but it's also something to say because he did 40 years. And we need to stop the possibility of that happening. You know, we got so many elders who have done decades and decades. So I suggest that one.

EMERSON
[00:30:44] Well, I will note for, we're recording this video, but for those who are just listening to the audio, we both have on hats right now, it's been a long day and the barbershops haven’t been open. I saw a brother on the street the other day with the tightest, freshest fade. And I didn't know whether to give him a round of applause or to scream at him. I wonder what your reaction is when you see somebody who actually has a great haircut

DWAYNE
[00:31:09] I ain’t gonna front man. You remember Bubs from The Wire? My wife said my hair look like his the day we met. You know, my sons don't get haircuts, my sons are twelve and eight. One got locs. The other one got a really knotty kind of fro. I shape my beard. I don't really get haircuts, man. You know, I mean. In prison, they called me Shyheim, the rugged child. When I first went in, you know what I mean, it's like, yo man. Like, I see somebody wrapped, like, bruh. I applaud him, but I’m just like, it’s just not gonna be me.

EMERSON
[00:31:45] So you are not going to be on the Capitol steps protesting that you need a haircut. You need to reopen the state so you can go to the barbershop.

DWAYNE
And when I do go get it. You know, it's gonna be a Mohawk. So.

EMERSON
Okay. Last two: what’s giving you hope right now?

DWAYNE
[00:31:59] I mean, you know, my homeboy made parole, man, he did 28 years. You know, he made parole. The parole board of Virginia fought man, they were working 10, 11 hour days. They released more people on parole. And it ain't enough, but they release more people on parole. And man hope is easy. Man, it's like it's like one of those things, will you hope or will you not? And I think hope is easier. My kids are. Yeah, my kids give me hope. We struggle through things, we survive. I have hope because during this crisis, mass incarceration and getting people out of prison has become an issue for a lot of us. And for a lot of us who it wasn't an issue with before, and so that makes me hopeful.

EMERSON
[00:32:37] What are you looking forward to most? What's your next project? What's what's on the horizon that you can't wait to grab?

DWAYNE
[00:32:43] I got something that's cooking up that I can't talk about. I’ll be really excited when I could finally, like, really talk about that. And. And man, I'm doing a solo show. I'm trying to go to Broadway. You know, I mean, I spend a lot of time, my friends outside try to figure out who the fuck I am, and I mean, and it ain’t easy. You spend all this time in prison. You think, you know, you do a decade in prison, you will be at this place in your career. You will be a litigator. You'll be a public defender. What is this thing that was of? What is this thing that I am? But I'm becoming, I'm getting closer to embracing the arrogance that you need to say, I want to be a renaissance man. I want to do this solo show on Broadway. I want to do this other thing. I want to do that other thing. So, yeah, I'm excited about working on this solo show. I'm excited about turning Felon into something that’s recognizably different. And I'd never memorized the poem in my life. And right now, I know the first three pieces that open up the solo show by heart. And I feel real good about that.

EMERSON
[00:33:42] Word. Well, we can't wait to see it. Can't wait for the theaters to be open, the bookstores to be open, and us to be able to wrap our arms around our communities. But Dwayne Betts, it's an honor. It's a pleasure to have you on. Thank you so much for joining us. Stay safe and much love.

DWAYNE
Much love man, appreciate it.

EMERSON
Thanks very much for listening. If you enjoyed this conversation, please be sure to subscribe to At Liberty wherever you get your podcasts, and rate and review the show. We really appreciate the feedback. Until next week, peace.

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