A Question of Freedom: A Memoir of Learning, Survival, and Coming of Age in Prison

By Dwayne Betts

I read this book as a part of YLS’s Green Haven Prison reading group, a group organized by students, which usually reads a book concurrently with inmates of Green Haven prison, and goes to that prison to discuss the book with the inmates within the prison’s walls. Unfortunately, because of COVID, the prison is locked down, and not only are students not allowed in this semester, we were not even able to exchange letters with the men in Green Haven, as we had originally planned.

The book is very artistically written, with a poetic, non-chronological style that I imagine captures the mystery and changeableness of incarceration better than any simple, incremental structure could. In all honesty though, it felt hollow and somewhat pornographic to read it without speaking to the men at Green Haven. I have never experienced what Mr. Betts describes, and likely can never get anywhere close to such an experience. The point of reading the book was supposed to be to connect with men who have such an experience and want to talk about it, but reading the book with other incredibly comfortable Yale Law students—students who, like myself, use words like “interesting” to describe the unimaginably terrifying experiences described within—was less than fulfilling, and coldly academic in a way that often felt wrong. Listening to myself and other students complain about our class work and busy schedules before and after discussing the bald violence and insanity that Mr. Betts describes seemed all too clear a signal that we are incapable of getting what is important from this book on our own.

I do not know if I will ever know anyone who this book could benefit, but I may keep it in my pocket for if I work more closely with people who are incarcerated in the future. I think they would be able to get more out of it.