More 'freedom libraries' arrive in La. state prisons

The builder, who learned his trade while incarcerated for 25 years, crafts the libraries for state prison dorms


By Jacqueline Derobertis
The Times-Picayune | The New Orleans Advocate

ANGOLA, La. — In the three months since he was released from Louisiana State Penitentiary, James Washington says he has built 40 bookshelves by hand that have been shipped to prisons across the country.

The builder, who learned his trade while incarcerated for 25 years, now has the honor of crafting " Freedom Libraries" — shelves installed in state prison dorms filled with a carefully curated selection of books.

"I get to give back to the guys that come out of jail. At every level, I'm being helpful after so long," Washington said. "Being in prison for 25 years, it's like you're a liability. Now, I'm an asset. That's the thing that really anchors me."

Months after the Freedom Reads nonprofit placed their libraries in two Louisiana state prisons, the organization has returned to add more shelves to other state penal institutions. The New Orleans-based Revival Workshop, where Washington works, partners with the nonprofit to create custom bookshelves for the libraries.

Last week the organization added two libraries at Dixon Correctional Institute, two at Louisiana Correctional Institute for Women (currently the site of the former Jetson Center for Youth in Baker) and three additional libraries at Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola. Several months ago the nonprofit placed two more libraries at Elayn Hunt Correctional Center, which had been one of the first prisons in the state to recieve the shelves during the organization's first trip back in Februrary.

Through a partnership with the Louisiana Department of Corrections, Freedom Reads has built libraries across prisons in the state for almost a year.

"Louisiana is going through a major justice reform initiative and to enable us to have libraries in our dormitories is a step in the right direction," said DOC Sec. Jimmy Le Blanc in a Freedom Reads promotional video.

The dormitory libraries are part of founder Reginald Dwayne Betts' vision to bring hundreds of books to prisons across America that will inspire inmates while incarcerated. Betts, a 2021 MacArthur Fellow, founded the nonprofit to realize his dream of infusing prisons with literature and beauty in the hopes of changing the lives of those locked inside for the better.

"That's clearly a point of light in the space," Betts said.

MacArthur Fellowships are nationally prestigious grants that the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation give each year to "extraordinarily talented and creative individuals" across the country.

Before graduating from Yale Law School, Betts was sentenced to nine years in prison with the Virginia Department of Corrections after pleading guilty to a carjacking charge at the age of 16.

During his time in solitary confinement as a teenager, Betts was introduced to Dudley Randall's "The Black Poets," sparking a life-long interest in ideas that led him to become a poet, lawyer and prison rights advocate, according to the Freedom Reads website.

Unlike prison libraries, which are not accessible around the clock, the portable Freedom Libraries are housed in the dorms, allowing 24-hour access to hundreds of books.

Disciplinary activity is down, Le Blanc said in the Freedom Reads video. Walking into a dorm, you can see inmates sitting in bed with books and reading novels and poetry, he added.

"On the front end, we're having conversations," Betts said. "This is sort of the field of dreams. If we build it, they will come."

Washington returned to Angola last week to see his shelves installed.

"It's always fun to see something you build in its final destination and sometimes the responses on people's faces when they see it," Washington said.

After two decades behind bars, he now mentors other formerly incarcerated men at Revival Workshop trying to refine their woodworking skills. It's been "awesome," he said.

"I hope that everybody could have a story similar [to mine]," he said. "It's just a blessing. I feel overwhelmed with blessings."

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