Washington: A Question of Freedom

For D.C. youths who get caught up in the adult system, prison isn’t just an experience, it’s a journey. Because it’s not a full-fledged state, the District of Columbia doesn’t maintain prisons. That means anyone with a sentence too long to be served out at the D.C. Jail— gets shipped off. Kids who might not have ventured outside their neighborhoods, can find themselves being transported hundreds of miles . Family and friends are apt to lack the time or resources to visit, so the young prisoners can end up isolated and poetry provides an anchor back their community.Though poet Dwayne Betts wasn’t sentenced in D.C., but in a neighboring Virginia county, he’s from the area, and had something very similar happen to him. Sometime after, at just 16, he was convicted of carjacking, he found himself on a prison transport bus headed for, of all places, the Appalachian mountains, a place heavily associated with banjo music and racial homogeneity. In this episode we hear about the journey away from home and back and the role poetry plays.


One morning in 1996, Kelli Taylor, working as a reporter for the Australian Broadcasting bureau in D.C., arrived at her desk to find something unusual, a letter from a man sentenced  to die. It was the beginning of the chain of events that would lead to the founding of the Free Minds book club, a D.C. organization that reaches out to juvenile offenders through literature.


Award winning poet Dwayne Betts explains and takes us through a writing exercise about list poems.  Then he tells us what it was like to be incarcerated at 16, and what it was like to end up in an  Appalachian  supermax prison.


You can never tell how life is going to turn out. When poet Randall Horton arrived in Washington D.C. from Birmingham, Alabama in the 1970s, his future looked bright,  he’d come from a family of middle class educators, and was a good student and athlete who’d had his pick of colleges. Then, everything went wrong, and he was carted off to prison. The journey back wouldn’t be easy.


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