From Jail To Yale: Ex-Offender Graduates With Law Degree 10 Years After Release
NEW HAVEN — Reginald Dwayne Betts refuses to let his time in prison define his life. But he admits that he can't escape it. Even with an Ivy League education.
Days before he received his degree from Yale Law School on May 23, the Maryland native was splitting time between writing his final research paper and helping a longtime friend write letters to his parole officer.
It took a special bond to grab Betts' attention during one of the most hectic weeks in his life, a bond born when the two shared a cellblock in a Virginia prison.
"I've come a considerable distance from who I was at 16, but I'm still intimately connected to it, given the work I'm doing," Betts said. "Of course, it feels amazing to say I've come this huge distance, but the distance I've traveled is only worth it if I'm able to pull other people up."
At 16, Betts used a borrowed pistol to carjack a man sleeping in his car at Virginia's Springfield Mall, an offense that put him behind bars for eight years. At 35, he has a wife and two energetic sons, a degree from one of the top law schools in the country, and a desire to change the national conversation about incarceration.
Dwayne Betts served as the flag bearer for his Yale Law School Class of 2016 Monday. Betts, 35, graduated from Yale Law School on Monday afternoon in New Haven. At the age of sixteen, Betts was arrested for armed carjacking and sentenced to eight years in prison. (Patrick Raycraft / Hartford Courant)
"It's useful to have someone who's experienced both sides to be part of the conversation," he said. "The law is a way to think and argue, and a way to find solutions. We think of people in the system, but we don't think of how to get them out from under the thumb of the system."
Betts spent a good part of his life trying to outrun his criminal record. But few can move faster than three felonies, and Betts found that they were always waiting for him.
On job applications. In the leasing offices for apartment complexes. There was always that box to check, a question about "criminal history" that dug up the specter of a life-changing mistake forged in the heat of a teenager's brash recklessness.
Clockwise from bottom center: Miles Betts, 4, Micah Betts,7, wife Terese Roberson (Betts), 32, and Reginald Dwayne Betts, 35, in New Haven's Wooster Square Park May 17. Reginald Dwayne Betts, who once served time in prison for car-jacking, is graduating from Yale Law School. His latest book of poetry "Bastards of the Reagan Era" was published in 2015. (Melanie Stengel | Special to the Courant / Hartford Courant)
He found freedom from his past at a place some might call unlikely. At Yale, Betts was surrounded by a different class of people. Young men and women who flocked to the campus because their parents were lawyers. Because, they told him, it was the next logical step in their lives.
He never felt alienated. In fact, his ease of assimilation steeled his resolve.
"My ability to connect with my classmates told me it's possible to have a society that doesn't judge me for my past mistakes," he said. "That it's possible to create the notion that pre- and post-arrest, even pre- and post-incarceration, you're still a part of society."
As comfortable as he felt at Yale, law school wasn't always Betts' goal. He strove to be a writer, and has had more success in that field than most. A memoir and two collections of poetry. Fellowships to Warren Wilson College, where he earned a masters of fine arts, and Harvard's Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study.
"Law is the language of power, and understanding that language is important to understanding power," he said. "My concern with the law started with me being arrested, but it didn't necessarily put me in law school."
During his stint in prison, Betts realized he wasn't being properly credited for the time he'd served between his arrest and his conviction. But he didn't know how to communicate that through the proper channels. So he took a paralegal course.
"I didn't do it because I wanted to be a lawyer," he said. "I did it because I didn't want to be in another situation where I didn't know the answers to questions that affected my life."
That desire to learn, to gain leverage over the forces that control life, was apparent the first time Betts walked into Heather Gerken's constitutional law class.
"He was constantly asking me for extra reading; no one needs extra reading in law school," Gerken said. "It was like he was in a different world and was determined to figure it out and master it."
Gerken's was one of the first classes Betts took in New Haven. He wasn't the only one who learned from the experience.
"I've been in this business 15 years, and he taught me," Gerken said. "We teach that different classifications are acceptable if you're convicted of a felony. He's the living embodiment of why we should take issues with that and challenge that."
Betts believes part of his success with his classmates and professors at Yale came from his openness — he's not afraid, he said, to talk about his past.
It was his first and only crime, an uncharacteristic one. Betts was an honors student, the treasurer of his class at Suitland High, a magnet school in the Washington suburbs. But a streak of anger ran through him.
"I talked too much as a kid, never connected with teachers or who I needed to build my future," he said. "I didn't live in a place where you talked with people like me about going to college."
He started skipping the classes he excelled at and fell in with peers who didn't share his gifts, whose ambitions didn't extend beyond the streets they idled on.
"As a kid, robbery was a possibility, and one night, it became an option," he said. "I didn't think enough, but it wasn't peer pressure. I don't want to put this on another person. I just thought I was different, that I could avoid jail."
It was February, chilly. Betts remembers the look on his victim's face when he tapped the muzzle of the pistol on the window of the green Pontiac Grand Prix. Afterward, sitting in the stolen car, there was little joy.
"As soon as it happened, I knew I was going to prison," he said. "I remember feeling it, even as I was driving away from the mall, I knew it."
He was arrested the next day at another mall, Pentagon City in Arlington, during a shopping trip with the Pontiac owner's stolen credit card. Betts spent the following eight years in jail for carjacking, use of a firearm during a felony and attempted robbery.
Post-release, Betts' life was flurry of activity. A job as an assistant manager of a bookstore in Maryland. Degrees from community college, the University of Maryland, Warren Wilson College. A marriage to Terese. The births of Micah and Miles.
"He's a one-man wrecking ball for prejudice against people who often get written off," said Noah Messing, who taught Betts during his second year at Yale. "Yale did not make Dwayne. He's already an extraordinary person. Yale is giving him the first opportunity in an environment to think critically."
Messing said he got a firsthand look at Betts' "charm and personality" during a class on legal writing and research. Though he was the oldest student in the room, Betts excelled at forging relationships, according to his former professor.
"He creates, in a really rare way, an amazing chance for people to talk to folks who've had contact with the criminal justice system and explore what it's like," Messing said.
Beyond those relationships, Betts was a competent student, a voracious reader who pressed Messing for ways to adapt his literary writing style to the utilitarian approach lawyers thrive on.
"It's one of the most remarkable things about Dwayne," he said. "It makes me wonder with such heartbreak about what extraordinary potential is being left on the sidelines because people don't get second chances in life."
Betts isn't wasting his. He plans to take the bar exam in Pennsylvania and Connecticut. And, armed with a fellowship from Yale's Arthur Liman Public Interest Program, he hopes to research and practice public interest lawyering "around criminal justice issues," he said.
Post-conviction relief will be his main focus.
"This, all of this, allows me to prove my story is useful," Betts said. "In conversations, lawmakers will look at me and say 'you're an exception.' Yeah, well, in 2005, I wasn't. And I want to fight for that guy."