What would you describe as beautiful about a prison? To me, that seems a difficult question. Yet in this episode, returning guest Dwayne Betts helped me to see just how much there- or at least could be. Betts sat down with EconTalk host Russ Roberts to talk beauty, offer an update on his ambitious project to install libraries in prisons, and his new book, Redaction– a collaborative effort of poetry and visual art.

“Freedom begins with a book,” is the tagline for Betts’ Freedom Reads program, as well as a fitting tagline for his personal story. Betts recounts how a fellow prisoner slid “The Black Poets” under his cell door, sparking a life transformation that led to Betts committing to being a poet and to making a life which included beauty in prison. (And in a delightful complementary story, to his reading of Sophie’s World and Sophie’s Choice, but that’s a project for another day…)

Roberts presses Betts, what does it mean to “reach for beauty?” And how can you appreciate beauty when you’re in an otherwise ugly place? Who is to say who is worthy of a beautiful thing, and who gets to decide that question? Any and every decision you make is a choice, says Betts. We hope you will choose to continue this conversation with us.



1- What examples of joy in prison does Betts point to? What are some other examples of beauty existing within ugly spaces you can think of, and why do you find them beautiful? To what extent is finding beauty simply a matter of paying attention, as Betts suggests?


2- Betts spends a good deal of time describing the shape and construction and the location of the Freedom Reads bookshelves his group places. What are some of the details he thinks are important that surprised you, and why? What does he mean when he says they are trying to “create the opportunity for transformative experiences?” DO you have any ideas about other contexts in which we might usefully employ this way of thinking? Tell us about them!


3- An element of the program that surprised me was learning that when libraries are placed for inmates, they are also placed for the prison’s Corrections Officers, too. Why does Betts insist on this? What does it mean to publicly see someone as a reader? To what extent do you agree with Betts that, “books fundamentally are just so much better at changing people’s minds and the way they see the world than arguments.” How can libraries be both democratic and equitable?


4- The conversation closes with Roberts and Betts each describing what’s magical about books for them. How would you answer this question? What’s a book that has profoundly changed you, and how? (And any books you might suggest we read together?)


Bonus Question: What’s the last poem you memorized, and why? Do you think school kids should still be required to memorize similarly? Why or why  not?