Maryland-born Betts held high promise right from childhood, was in gifted programs throughout his youth, and in high school was an honors student and class treasurer at Suitland High School in the Washington, D.C. suburb of District Heights, Maryland. However, his whole world came crashing when at age sixteen, he and a friend carjacked a man who had fallen asleep in his car at the Springfield Mall. Betts got charged as an adult and consequently spent more than eight years in prison (including fourteen months in solitary confinement), although it all seemed hopeless, Betts, holding on to determination chose to embrace positivity. He held strong and completed high school and began reading and writing poetry even while behind bars.
“I was in solitary confinement…. You could call out for a book and someone would slide one to you. Frequently, you would not know who gave it to you. Somebody slid The Black Poets edited by Dudley Randall. In that book I read Robert Hayden for the first time, Sonia Sanchez, Lucille Clifton. I saw the poet as not just utilitarian but as serving art. In a poem you can give somebody a whole world. Before that, I had thought of being a writer, writing mostly essays and maybe, one day, a novel. But at that moment I decided to become a poet.” “Dudley Randall’s The Black Poets, slid under my cell in the hole, introduced me to the poets that had me believing words can be carved into a kind of freedom.”
After serving an eight-year prison term, Betts earned an M.F.A. in Creative Writing from Warren Wilson College and a Juris Doctor degree from Yale Law School. Today, the 41-year-old has proudly rewritten his story as a poet, lawyer educator, and prison reform advocate.
Before then he began working at Karibu Books in Bowie, Maryland. His dedication at the store eventually saw him promoted to store manager. He later founded the Freedom Reads, a book club organization that gives incarcerated people access to books. He founded it while attending Prince George’s Community College in Largo, Maryland. He later became a teacher of poetry in Washington, DC. In 2012, then-President Barack Obama announced that Betts had been named a member of the Coordinating Council on Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. In 2013, he taught in the writing program (WLP) at Emerson College.
In 2016, Betts graduated from Yale Law School and passed the Connecticut bar exam. In September 2017, the bar’s Examining Committee recommended him for admission, after the bar had rejected his initial membership application. He is currently working on his Ph.D. in law at Yale.
An active campaigner, Betts is also the national spokesman for the Campaign for Youth Justice. He is also noted for pursuing juvenile-justice reform. He also visits detention centers and inner-city schools, where he gives talks to at-risk young people.
In September 2021, Betts was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship. He is currently working on a Ph.D. in Law at Yale University.
His awards and honors include:
In 2009, Shahid Reads His Own Palm won the Beatrice Hawley Award for poetry.
In 2010, Betts was awarded a fellowship from the Open Society Foundation.
His memoir, A Question of Freedom, won an NAACP Award for non-fiction.
In 2017, Only Once I Thought About Suicide received the Israel H. Perez Prize for best student comment appearing in the Yale Law Journal.
In 2018 he was chosen to be a writing fellow for PEN America’s Writing for Justice Fellowship.
In 2018 he was also awarded a Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship.
Betts was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship in 2021.