Malcolm X’s former prison cell becomes first of 1,000 planned ‘freedom libraries’

·3 min read
<span>Photograph: Eddie Adams/AP</span>
Photograph: Eddie Adams/AP

The first of the planned amenities for US prisoners opens in the Massachusetts jail where the campaigner was incarcerated in the 1940s

Malcolm X writes in his autobiography of how he spent hours reading in the library at Norfolk Prison in Massachusetts. Now the cell that the human rights activist is believed to have occupied is set to be transformed into a library itself, thanks to the work of the poet and lawyer Reginald Dwayne Betts.

Betts, who won a MacArthur “genius” grant worth $625,000 (£471,000) in September, was incarcerated himself after being tried as an adult for a carjacking at the age of 16. He has spoken of how, during the nine years he spent in prison, he was “writing every day, reading every day, imagining that words would give me the freedom to understand what got me in prison”, because “when you’re trapped in a cell, literally, words are your only lifeline”.

Reginald Dwayne Betts.
Reginald Dwayne Betts. Photograph: Jessica Hill/AP

Betts is now working to set up 1,000 micro-libraries in prisons across the US through his charity, Freedom Reads, supported by the Andrew W Mellon Foundation. The first Freedom Library opened this month at the MCI-Norfolk, in the cell believed to have been Malcolm’s in the 1940s. While there, the activist, who had been jailed for robbery, spent many hours reading and studying the dictionary in the library and joining the debating society.

“One of the things Malcolm X said was that a prerequisite for changing your life is an understanding of what it means to be guilty,” Betts told the Boston Globe. “And what it means to want to be more than that thing. And I think books give you access to that. So it’s this opportunity for people to come close to personal discovery, to come close to reflection.”

Related: Two men convicted in assassination of Malcolm X to be exonerated

The new library combines a broad range of fiction and non-fiction, from Malcolm X’s autobiography to works by Dickens and Steinbeck, Betts said. “It skews toward contemporary work and it’s diverse in every way you might expect,” he told the paper. “It’s a lot of women writers. And it’s a combination of fun books and challenging books.”

The idea to place the library in Malcolm X’s cell came from the prison’s superintendent Nelson Alves. “Alves said ‘I’ve worked in prisons 25 years and I’ve never seen anything beautiful here’. And so we built this thing that’s beautiful that has all this knowledge, and we’ve built it with the hope and the expectation that it will benefit the staff and those doing time as well,” said Betts. “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. 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?”

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