Chatham News

Author and Poet R. Dwayne Betts to give reading at Chatham University about his past of crime and imprisonment

By: Amanda Leff Ritchie, Senior Public Relations Specialist
November 16, 2011 

PITTSBURGH (November 16, 2011)…Chatham University’s MFA in Creative Writing program will host author and poet R. Dwayne Betts for a free public reading and book signing at 8 p.m. on December 2 in the Welker Room, James Laughlin Music Hall, Shadyside Campus. Betts will read from his memoir A Question of Freedom: A Memoir of Learning, Survival, and Coming of Age in Prison (Penguin/Avery, 2009), for which he won the 2010 NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Literary Debut. In addition, he will read from his collection of poems Shahid Reads His Own Palm (Alice James Books, 2010), which won the publisher’s Beatrice Hawley Award.

The event is part of Chatham’s Words Without Walls Black Writers Reading Series, funded by the Advancing Black Arts in Pittsburgh Fund of The Pittsburgh Foundation. The grant supports the visits of five black writers throughout the next year, who will present their work at the Allegheny County Jail for the inmates studying creative writing there through Chatham’s Words Without Walls program. Each writer will also give a public reading of their work while in Pittsburgh. More information about the series is available on Chatham’s news page.

At the age of sixteen, R. Dwayne Betts, a good student from a lower-middle-class family, was arrested for carjacking. He had never held a gun before, but within a matter of minutes he had committed six felonies. In Virginia, as in many states, minors who commit carjacking are tried in adult courts, resulting in harsher penalties. He served a nine-year sentence in some of the harshest adult prisons in the state. A Question of Freedom chronicles Betts’ years in prison, during which he confronts profound questions about violence, freedom, crime, race, and the justice system.

An advocate for juvenile justice and prison reform, Betts is the national spokesperson for the Campaign for Youth Justice. He has been profiled in numerous media outlets, including The Washington Post, USA Today, and The Baltimore Sun, and has appeared on CNN, NPR, and Tavis Smiley on PBS. In addition, his poetry and essays have been published in Ploughshares, the literary magazine at Emerson College; the Crab Orchard Review, a literary journal published by the Department of English at Southern Illinois Carbondale; The Washington Post; and the ABA Journal, among other publications.

Throughout the past two years, Betts has lectured or appeared on panels at Georgetown Law School, Howard Law School, and American University. He has also been a featured speaker at the 2009 National Association of Counties legislative conference, the 2009 Coalition for Juvenile Justice annual conference, and the 2009 American Bar Association conference.

An accomplished poet, Betts is a Cave Canem Workshop Fellow, recipient of the Holden Fellowship to attend the MFA program at Warren Wilson College and a scholarship to the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, and was a 2010 Soros Fellow.

Betts received his MFA from Warren Wilson College and is a graduate of Prince George’s Community College.

About Words Without Walls
Words Without Walls is a creative collaboration between Chatham University’s MFA in Creative Writing program and the Allegheny County Jail. It fosters and supports creative expression and personal growth by exposing men and women at the jail to literature, award-winning visiting authors, and the opportunity to publish their work. Words Without Walls grew from a residency program started by artist Sandra Gould Ford. Because of the program’s reach, Chatham University committed to continuing the program’s creative writing classes at Allegheny County Jail in June 2010. Because of its innovative approach to learning and teaching, Words Without Walls has received support from the A. W. Mellon Education and Charitable Trust Fund of The Pittsburgh Foundation and the Advancing Black Arts in Pittsburgh Fund, a partnership of The Heinz Endowments and The Pittsburgh Foundation.

About Chatham’s MFA in Creative Writing program
Chatham’s MFA in Creative Writing program allows students to focus on tracks in creative nonfiction, fiction, poetry, screenwriting, and writing for children, and encourages them to explore two tracks simultaneously.  Students take innovative field seminars that include travel to such places as Costa Rica, Ecuador, India and Germany. In 2007 Poets & Writers named the MFA one of “Nine Distinctive Programs” and The Atlantic Monthly named it one of five Innovative/Unique Programs in the country in its “Best of the Best” graduate program listings, while in 2009 The Writer named it one of ten programs that offer a specialty focus. Chatham University also offers an undergraduate BFA in Creative Writing, an online Master of Professional Writing, and a low-residency Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing.  For more information visit

About Chatham University
Chatham University prepares students from around the world to help develop solutions to some of the world’s biggest challenges. Consistently ranked among the top master’s level institutions in the Northeast by U.S. News & World Report and The Princeton Review, Chatham University is also ranked in the top five percent of graduate-intensive institutions nationally and experienced the fastest-growing enrollment in the Pittsburgh region over the past decade. Founded in 1869, Chatham University includes the Shadyside Campus, with the historic 39-acre Woodland Road arboretum and Chatham Eastside facility; and the 388-acre Eden Hall Campus north of Pittsburgh. For more information, call 800-837-1290 or visit

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