May 22, 2024

National Nonprofit Partners with University to Open Libraries in New Jersey Prisons

FREEDOM THROUGH LITERATURE: New Jersey Department of Corrections Commissioner Victoria L. Kuhn, left, and poet and Freedom Reads founder and CEO Reginald Dwayne Betts admire a new bookcase in a housing wing of Garden State Correctional Facility.

By Anne Levin

Before he graduated from Yale Law School and became a MacArthur Fellow, Reginald Dwayne Betts spent nine years in prison after pleading guilty to carjacking. He was only 16. It was the availability of books, and the engagement with literature, that got him through those years without crushing his spirit.

An award-winning poet, Betts was a resident artist at Princeton University’s Lewis Center for the Arts in 2021. In a new connection with the University, Betts’ national nonprofit Freedom Reads has just opened nine Freedom Libraries at Garden State Correctional Facility, a state prison for adults in Chesterfield, Burlington County. Princeton University Library is a supporter.

“Freedom Reads is, as I am personally, tremendously grateful to Princeton and the Princeton University Library for their continuing support over years,” Betts said in an announcement of the program from the New Jersey Department of Corrections (NJDOC). “This ongoing support helped make possible a powerful theater adaptation of one of my poetry collections that we now bring to incarcerated adults and kids in prisons across the nation. It is therefore most fitting that Princeton University Library joins us as we partner with the New Jersey Department of Corrections to open the First Freedom Libraries in the New Jersey prison system.”

During his Lewis Center residency, Betts worked with Jane Cox, director of the Program in Theater and Music Theater; and Elise Thoron, co-founding artistic director of Literature to Life. The collaboration produced an adaptation of Betts’ poetry collection FELON into the solo theater piece FELON: An American Washi Tale. The piece explored the consequences of having a criminal record, fatherhood, the power of literature, and love. Performances were held in March of 2023 along with related events and an exhibit co-sponsored by numerous University departments, including the University Library.

“It was an honor to participate in the development of Betts’ first work for the stage,” said Cox in the announcement from the NJDOC. The performance piece “powerfully demonstrated to our students how performance can bring varied communities together and humanize critical issues.”

Betts founded Freedom Reads in 2020 with a grant from the Mellon Foundation. To date, the nonprofit has opened 303 Freedom Libraries in 37 prisons across 10 states. The Garden State Correctional Facility libraries, which opened May 15 with a performance of FELON: An American Washi Tale, are the first in the New Jersey correctional system.

“Freedom Libraries seek to create a space in prisons to encourage community and in which reaching for a book can be as spontaneous as human curiosity,” reads the release. “Each bookcase is handcrafted out of maple, walnut, or cherry, and is curved to contrast the straight lines and bars of prisons as well as to evoke Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s observation about the “arc of the universe’ and bending ‘toward justice.’”

NJDOC Commissioner Victoria L. Kuhn thanked Freedom Reads and the University for the library collections. “These donated books are more than just resources — they’re tools for transformation,” she said. “Within their pages lie the potential to empower minds, unlock opportunities, and cultivate a culture of learning that fosters rehabilitation, reintegration, and a brighter future.”

Books in the collection of Freedom Reads are curated through consultations with poets, novelists, philosophers, and readers. The libraries include works by novelists, essayists, and contemporary poets, as well as classics such as Homer’s The Odyssey and the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, “titles that remind us that the book has long been a freedom project,” reads the release.
Anne Jarvis, Dean of Libraries and Robert H. Taylor University Librarian, said the library is proud to participate and provide support for the initiative. “Collaborating with organizations like Freedom Reads to promote opportunities to read and discover is a critical part of our mission,” she said.

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