Freedom Library opening at Dorsey Run Correctional Facility in Maryland. (Photo: Gioncarlo Valentine)


Freedom Libraries turn cellblocks into communities.

On March 4, 2024, 19 years to the day that Dwayne was released from prison, the Freedom Reads team went into two Virginia prisons with men who spent over 100 years in prisons — Kevin Williams, who was sentenced to life + 33 years; Marcus Bullock, who was sentenced to eight years at 15 years old; James and Javon, who both went into Angola at 15 years old and did 25 years. Two members of the team, Steven, who did 30 years in Rhode Island and Connecticut, and Kevin, who did seven years, were there too.

The Dillwyn Correctional Center visiting room was turned into a stage. For 84 minutes, Dwayne performed his one-man show, FELON: An American Washi Tale, and then answered questions. At Buckingham Correctional Center across the way, FELON was performed again. At both prisons, photographer Gioncarlo Valentine took portraits of the men there. Men skipped chow to be photographed. They delighted in learning how a change in light could make them shine. Sometimes freedom is realizing that even when you feel despair, there is someone out there who believes you are beautiful.

Letter from Freedom Library Patron Carl at Buckingham Correctional Facility in Virginia that reads:

Hello Dwayne and The Freedom Reads Family,

Thank You and Thank God first and foremost. Today was a very blessed day for all of us. Mostly, for being blessed to be present and apart of such an enlightening and powerful performance of theatrical art. Also a blessed day for you, the significance in the date you chose to gift us with this performance, March 4, the day you were released from prison. Wow!! My God! This is a release date to all of us now. You may ask yourself, “A release from what?” Dwayne, you may not really know the impact you and your team had on us, not only us that attend this heartfelt event, but also the ones that are getting the aftershock of your message, your performance as they listen to us talking about it as we share with others.

– Carl, Freedom Library Patron at Buckingham Correctional Facility in Virginia
Letter from Carl, Freedom Library Patron at Buckingham Correctional Facility in Virginia.

Freedom Reads brought theater to a group of men who said in 30 years they’d never seen anything like this. In three days, we opened 32 libraries at these two prisons.

We call these events openings because they open up possibilities, new ways of thinking, and reignite hope. Members of the Freedom Reads team often arrive at prisons after driving hundreds of miles. Sometimes we are accompanied by performers or acclaimed writers. Sometimes we show up just to open Freedom Libraries, that we drill and glue to the floor and shelve with books, often in the company of inside patrons captivated by it all.

At York Correctional Center, the women’s prison in Connecticut, we opened 11 libraries in 2022. We were initially met with skepticism by the women and the staff alike. “Why don’t you bring us mattresses?” one of the women who was helping to move boxes of books asked us; “These books are all going to be taken” said one of the correctional officers; another asked “is this going to be more work for us?” But as we unpacked books and struck up conversations, the magic of Freedom Libraries broke the ice. Even the most skeptical officer warmed up when he was given a hard cover of Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential.