In the three months since his release from Louisiana State Penitentiary, James Washington says he has hand-built 40 bookcases that have been shipped to prisons across the country.
The master builder, who learned his craft during 25 years in prison, now has the honor of crafting “Freedom Libraries” – shelves installed in state prison dormitories and filled with a carefully curated selection of books.
“I can give back to the guys who come out of prison. After such a long time, I’m helpful at all levels,” Washington said. “Being in prison for 25 years is like being a liability. Now I’m an asset. That’s what really anchors me.”
Months after nonprofit organization Freedom Reads housed its libraries in two Louisiana state prisons, the organization has returned to add more shelves to other state correctional facilities. The New Orleans-based Revival Workshop, where Washington works, works with the nonprofit to create custom bookcases for the libraries.
Last week, the organization added two libraries at the Dixon Correctional Institute, two at the Louisiana Correctional Institute for Women (current site of the former Jetson Center for Youth in Baker), and three more libraries at the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola. A few months ago, the nonprofit set up two more libraries at the Elayn Hunt Correctional Center, which was one of the first prisons in the state to receive the shelves during the organization’s first trip in February.
Through a partnership with the Louisiana Department of Corrections, Freedom Reads spent nearly a year building libraries in state prisons.
“Louisiana is going through a major judicial reform initiative, and allowing 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 during their incarceration. Betts, a 2021 MacArthur Fellow, founded the nonprofit to fulfill his dream of filling prisons with literature and beauty in hopes of changing the lives of those locked inside them for the better.
“This is clearly a point of light in the room,” Betts said.
MacArthur Fellowships are nationally recognized grants awarded each year by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation to “extraordinarily talented and creative individuals” across the country.
Before graduating from Yale Law School, Betts was sentenced to nine years in prison by the Virginia Department of Corrections after pleading guilty to carjacking at age 16.
During his time in solitary confinement as a teenager, Betts met Dudley Randall’s “The Black Poets,” which sparked a lifelong interest in ideas that led him to become a poet, lawyer, and prison rights advocate, according to website Freedom Reads.
Unlike prison libraries, which are not accessible 24/7, the portable liberty libraries are housed in dormitories and allow 24/7 access to hundreds of books.
Disciplinary action is on the decline, Le Blanc said in Freedom Reads video. Entering a dormitory, you see inmates sitting in bed with books reading novels and poetry, he added.
“On the front end, we have conversations,” Betts said. “This is the field of dreams, so to speak. If we build it, they will come.”
Washington returned to Angola last week to see its shelves being installed.
“It’s always fun to see something you build in its final destination and sometimes the reactions 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 as they try to hone their woodworking skills. It’s “great,” he said.
“I hope everyone could have a similar story [to mine],” he said. “It’s just a blessing. I feel overwhelmed with blessings.”