Prison, a Terrible Father

Felon: Poems
by Reginald Dwayne Betts
W.W. Norton Company 2019  $15.95
by Jake Maguire, PIOnline staff



Felon, Reginald Dwayne Betts’ autobiographical meditation on the experiences and collective trauma of being incarcerated in America, first appeared in 2019. I came to the book only recently, and somewhat reluctantly, not eager to revisit some of the trauma Betts describes. To my surprise, I came away moved and oddly comforted. Not only is this book authentic and riveting, but the language is mixed and richly layered with the longing for what has been absent or stolen from us. Whether it’s the absence of a reliable father, the lost time between a group of inmates, or the erasure of an entire community through the destructive practices of the criminal justice system, Betts places the reader intimately into the struggle of a man making every effort to reenter society. For the felon, the cell never goes away, and despite seeking redemption, connection, and love, the haunting memories and lingering PTSD never truly disappear. What does disappear however is an entire segment of the population—our loved ones—people from the neighborhood, and the lives cut short by the never-ending cycle of violence. Betts’ poetry haunts with flashbacks of being stuck in a variety of cages, literal and figurative, and his verse gives us moments of melody and dissonance, triumph, and regret. Certain sections linger in the mind for days—consider the stanza from part three of his deeply moving seven-part poem “House of Unending:”

                               There is no name for this thing that you’ve become:
                    Convict, prisoner, inmate, lifer, yardbird, all fail.
                               If you can’t be free, be a mystery. An amnesic.
                    Anything. But avoid succumbing to the humdrum:
                    Swallowing a bullet or even just choosing to inhale.


                    Swallowing a bullet or even just choosing to inhale,
                              Both mark you: pistol or the blunt to the head
                    Escorting you through the night. Your Yale –
                              An omen, the memories, the depression, the dead [1]

This section, wrenching and heartbreaking as it is, links more than just the second sonnet to the third, it gives us a peek into what is lost within the psyche. It asks us to contemplate what we often gloss over or take for granted, such as the autonomic and reflexive elements of life. What has become more familiar to us than our own breath? I submit that it’s our desire to become more than what society callously labels us; the survivor’s instinct to transcend suffering and find a place to call home. Felon pushes and pulls the reader in a variety of different directions, all of which ask us to ponder how the absence of fatherly love has diminished us. For the felon, this also includes the absence of a heavenly father which he claims he can’t or won’t believe in. Standing in juxtaposition with this image, he presents himself as a loving man for his wife and children, but we learn it was a love denied him as a child.

Betts takes us out of the prison cell and on a journey of self-discovery that ultimately seeks to obtain love and belonging for all of us, collectively, as family. We may have come from broken homes and never known real care, but here Betts claims us and comforts us despite our failures and offenses. The overall power of Felon is that it is a truthful portrayal of our criminal justice system and accurately depicts what happens to people who get stuck in the system. As Betts unveils in his four excellent and moving redaction poems, “In Alabama,” “In California,” “In Houston,” and “In Missouri,” our state correctional facilities have essentially acted as terrible father figures doing tremendous harm to our families and communities. Felon implores us all to summon the courage to change this system.



[1] “House of Unending,” p. 82

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