Malcolm X's former prison cell to be library for incarcerated people

The Boston Globe reports that Reginald Dwayne Betts, a MacArthur Award-winning poet who himself spent eight years in prison, plans to convert a prison cell at MCI-Norfolk into a new "Freedom Library," as part of a grant project through the Mellon Foundation. Betts wants to build library spaces in prisons around the country, and while this would be the first in his Freedom Library project, it's a particularly powerful place to start — it's the cell that's believed to have imprisoned Malcolm X during the time when he began his conversion to Islam.

"When you hear Malcolm X talk about it — and understand it's a prison in the '40s — he talks about it as a place where people valued education, where people valued knowledge," Betts, 41, said. "He got a chance to be a leader of an intellectual community. So a project like this, what better place to put it to begin?"


The idea of prison as a place of transformation seems to have captured Betts's imagination. He was locked up for his role in a carjacking, serving eight years before being released. He became a poet first, then turned his attention to law, and to prison reform. He has a degree from Yale Law School, and is currently working on a doctorate there.


"The thing about the Freedom Libraries is that we put them on housing units," Betts said. "We put them close to where people are. So every day when they look out their cells or they look around their living quarters they can see something beautiful, and they can access these books. These books can become a part of their life for as long as they have to be there. Also, the books can become a conduit for them not having to be there."

While many prisons do have libraries, they tend to focus on legal texts. By contrast, Betts is curating the Malcolm X Freedom Library with a mix of fiction and nonfiction books, including classics of prison literature such as Claude Brown's Manchild in the Promised Land and John Edgar Wideman's Brothers and Keepers, as well as more traditional classics by Charles Dickens, John Steinbeck, poetry by Elizabeth Alexander and Robert Hayden, and of course, Malcom X's autobiography. About one-fifth of the books will be in Spanish.

Prison advocate and MacArthur 'genius' turns what may be Malcolm X's former cell into a library and place for hope [Adrian Walker / The Boston Globe]

Image: Jay Tomboli / Flickr (CC-BY-SA