Dismantling the Carceral System in Metaphor: A Review of Redaction by Reginald Dwayne Betts and Titus Kaphar

Erik Gleibermann

Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.
-8th Amendment, United States Constitution  

Inside his backpack at Yale Law School, as he aimed to become a public defender, 17 years after being imprisoned for a carjacking he committed at age 16, poet Reginald Dwayne Betts kept a sheaf of handwritten letters penned by an executed man named Glenn McGinnis. Some letters began with poems. Together, they “collapsed the distance between me & prison,” Betts explains in the introduction to Redaction. The book is a collaboration with visual artist Titus Kaphar that interplays poetry, image and legal documents to figuratively deconstruct the interlocking pieces of America’s broken criminal justice system. “They made me see how much I’d held back; all the pain & anguish,” Betts reflects.

I’ve wondered if Betts the law student were sheltering McGinnis’ testimonial in his backpack as a human touchstone, a spiritual counterforce to the logic-driven course materials stashed alongside it—the depositions, statutes, case reviews and scholarly monographs saturated with legalese. Redaction, an adaptation of a multimedia exhibition first presented at the MoMA in 2019, is itself such a touchstone. It appropriates legal text and historic painting as raw material to express the stories of the Black men and women abused by the carceral system and also acknowledge their historical forbears who endured the Jim Crow and slavery eras.

Betts’ opening poem “Crispus Attucks: for Natalie Diaz” announces the project’s stance that contemporary criminal injustice echoes across American history:

& Crispus Attuck’s two dead eyes,
Vacant as a confederate soldier’s,
Empty as some stories of tomorrow

Attucks has been romanticized as the first martyr of the American Revolution, but Betts questions the value of “his dead body counted first, as if being counted / Is a prerequisite to freedom.” The counting is an allusion to the enslaved Black body rendered only a three-fifths demographic statistic in the original U. S. Constitution, a fraction the poem repeats five times. Betts also directly links Black to Native American oppression with references to Lenape and Mohegan native ethnicities and the dedication to Mojave poet Natalie Diaz.

Redaction combines historical and first-person verse that uses traditional lineated form in white space with visually arresting poetic erasures of legal document facsimiles, etched close-up portraits and reconfigured American genre paintings. Betts and Kaphar pursue analogous processes of inverting and subverting existing texts by stripping down their surfaces to highlight underlying colonialist messages that violate the Black self. One style that anchors the 9-1/2’’ x 12’’ book and recurs, is a five-layer page format comprised of a black background superimposed with a thinly etched, white-line portrait, typewritten legal text lain over the portrait and a hand-drawn gold bar erasure that leaves behind a prose poem commentary. Each layer textures a narrative of Black Americans jailed for being unable to pay bail. On one page, erased from a Montgomery, Alabama civil rights lawsuit document, a 23-year-old mother longing to be with her children, cleaned metal jail bars to post bond. In another case from Montgomery, a man who owed $1600 in traffic tickets served 23 days in jail and also had to work off his debt by cleaning, which included wiping blood and feces from the floors. Forced to do this job in jail for numerous days, he ended up losing his actual job on the outside. In another lawsuit redaction from Ferguson, Missouri, detainees face “walls smeared with mucus and blood,” where, “shivering women——forced to / share blankets——officers shout——stanky ass / dykes——dirty whores.” The superimposed facial etchings recall dehumanizing police suspect sketches, but Kaphar invests these figures with an emotional vulnerability that embodies the accompanying erasure stories. In their eyes, we see the wounds.

Betts and Kaphar, Redaction, 67.

By choosing legal documents from Montgomery and Ferguson for the source texts, the artists implicitly comment on two key historical events connected to mass incarceration. The 1956 Montgomery bus boycott was a dramatic civil rights victory, and yet, over 60 years later, segregation persists in American institutions such as public schools.[1] Segregation is actually increasing in housing.[2] This pattern is inseparable from the overrepresentation of Black Americans in the criminal justice system. Ferguson, meanwhile, represents the national pattern of police killings of Black Americans. Ferguson is the notorious St. Louis suburb where teenager Michael Brown was murdered in 2014 by police officer Darren Wilson. There’s a link between this murder of a young man who’s committed no crime and jail officials denigrating women as dirty whores, who have also committed no crimes, but simply cannot afford bail. The Ferguson Report, The U.S. Department of Justice’s widely publicized 2015 investigation into the city’s racially prejudiced police practices, details how the city’s everyday municipal policies criminalize the Black community that is 67 percent of the population, but suffers 93 percent of arrests by a police force of 50 white and 4 Black sworn police officers.[3] In Redaction, Betts and Kaphar spotlight the particular injustice of the insidious money bail system in Montgomery, Ferguson and other cities, and that specific exposé serves to illustrate how all the interacting mechanisms of law, policing, schools, courts, prisons and the media intricately combine to perpetuate mass incarceration. Bail is just one cog in the machine.

The Redaction project does not cite statistics, but the primary source facsimiles project a documentary element into the narrative that suggests the stark underlying data. In recent decades, the U.S. has incarcerated over two million of its residents, more than any other country in the world and five times more than any country in Western Europe. Black Americans are incarcerated at a rate five times that of whites and comprise 38 percent of the population in prisons and jails.[4] While the prison population has gradually declined in recent years (more so during the pandemic) and sentencing reform has been a longstanding progressive goal, in 2023, three years after the racial justice protests following the murder of George Floyd, many Democrats have reverted to a politically popular tough-on-crime agenda. The system remains deeply entrenched.

Scholar Michelle Alexander makes a striking historical parallel of mass incarceration to an earlier era of mass segregation through the title of her influential 2010 book, The New Jim Crow. Mass incarceration today mirrors that historical era, but the penal system could equally be called the new plantation. Alexander stated in a 2011 interview that more Black men were then incarcerated, on parole or serving probation, than were enslaved in 1850.[5]

Betts dramatizes this historical equation between mass incarceration and slavery with a redaction poem that uses the 1793 Fugitive Slave Act as source text. The act established a legal process for capturing enslaved people who had escaped. It authorized courts to determine without trial whether a Black person was a fugitive or not, effectively imposing a guilty-until-proven-innocent condition. George Washington personally employed the law as president, hiring headhunters in 1796 to pursue a man who’d fled from his wife Martha’s control to free New Hampshire.[6] Betts’ redaction repeats the words fugitive and fled like an alliterative incantation. Read aloud, it could sound like a whip being struck repeatedly against a bare back. The final word of the poem, pulled from the last sentence of the act, is “injuries,” cynically referring not to the physical wounds of the enslaved, but the material loss of the slaveowner.

Betts and Kaphar, Redaction, 32

The poem demands that we frame slavery as the forerunner of contemporary mass incarceration. In fact, the political system today effectively turns felons into near-fugitives, imposing severe terms for probation and restricting job opportunities that make ex-prisoners highly vulnerable to re-arrest. According to a 2018 U.S. Department of Justice study, 87 percent of black men released from prison are rearrested.[7]

Kaphar’s multi-form color images that offset the prevailing black-white book scheme even more explicitly interrogate slavery in U.S. history. He particularly examines colonial period images, highlighting how garments mark caste status and identity. His technique is a material analogue to redaction. Kaphar crumples, slices, shreds, tars, stitches, twists and whitewashes historical paintings to expose and literally reframe their hegemonic ideologies. Whitewash, like erasure, is both a technique and a metaphor. Black people have been erased as subjects in historical texts (rendered a 3/5 statistic in the Constitution) and whitewashed as subjects from historical painting. Kaphar paradoxically both centers and subjugates Black subjects. Billy Lee: Portrait in Tar resembles an 18th Century sitting portrait set against a generic coastal background, a tiny period sailing ship dotting the seascape. The buttoned jacket, with a surreal sheen, suggests a white, male colonial figure. But the rounded head and face are thick black tar. The portrait imagines a Black subject as a source of power, while depersonalizing and also obliterating that subject. The featureless face universally restores all those whose records have been lost to us, while reminding how Black public self-expression has been historically effaced. Tarring, a mob torture method used against the naked body and popular during colonial times, though not racially associated at the time, suggests lynching today.

Betts and Kaphar, Redaction, 95. 

A second image that provokes deeply conflicted racial associations is Language of the Forgotten, an LED-backlit wood and glass surface that portrays a Black woman superimposed over a bust of Thomas Jefferson. Our immediate association is to Sally Hemings, the enslaved woman with whom Jefferson fathered at least six children.[8] The Hemings-Jefferson relationship suggested here raises profound historical questions about the connection between individual race relations and systemic white supremacy in America that cannot be answered by any particulars of what the historical record shows about their sexual relationship. What does a lineage of shared racial ancestry deriving from an enslaved woman and a key architect of American democracy signify about collective race relations? Some would claim that on an individual level, two such people could experience genuine sexual intimacy or love. But the counterargument is that sex between a slave master and the enslaved is intrinsically rape, a life sentence of sexual incarceration. There exists a romanticized myth, suggested in some art works and popular media products, that mutual desire might challenge or even transcend the brutal power realities of slavery. History does not offer access to the inner lives of Jefferson and Hemings. But ideologically, this idea has been employed to psychologically minimize slavery’s dehumanizing and genocidal nature.

Jefferson had bodily control over Hemings and he never freed her. But Kaphar’s double image empowers the sketched Hemings figure, who appears vibrantly individualized and photographically detailed against the idealized Jefferson sculpture that has become a Founding Fathers cliché. The woman directly faces the viewer with a gaze that suggests some combination of determination, anger and self-protective fear. Her arms are clenched and muscular, her hands loosely grasp each other. Her apron-like skirt indicates domestic subservience, but that role does not define her in the image. Is she imprisoned within the larger outline of Jefferson’s face that surrounds her or is she busting through its boundaries? Kaphar’s image remains brilliantly ambiguous.

Betts and Kaphar, Redaction, 142.

Betts’ persona poems, which balance Kaphar’s more historicized visual narratives, take us into private worlds where we witness the lasting harms incarceration inflicts on a man’s psyche and the threat this personal history can pose to those he loves.[9] At times, these poems explore the bonds of fathers, brothers and sons. Whether the poems explicitly name prison’s impact or not, we feel Betts on a quest for love to safeguard the vulnerable lives of these boys and men. “Essay on Reentry” opens with the speaker revealing his past to his young son. The poem is at least partly autobiographical, as Betts has spoken about the challenges of disclosing his story to his two sons.

At 2 a.m., without enough spirits
Spilling into my liver to call my tongue
To silence, my youngest learned the why
Of the years I spent inside a box: a spell,
A kind of incantation I was under; not whisky
But History: As a teenager, I robbed a man,

We sense the father’s anxiety, that while he can disclose his past, including experience of solitary confinement, it is only under the cover of alcohol and the disinhibiting hours of darkness. The son ends up comforting the father. “Daddy it’s okay,” the child says. Father then feels blessed.

I know what’s happening is some
Straggling angel, lost from his pack finding
A way to fulfill his duty, lending words
To this kid who crawls into my arms, wanting,
More than stories of my prisons,

Father too has a chance to become son and heal his own father wound. The speaker who coaches the boy in basketball redeems the father who never watched him play. This generational movement toward love becomes another form of prison rehabilitation, “a recompense for the pen.”

The final poem in Redaction, “On the occasion of my 41st birthday: For Michael K. Williams,” is a meditation on the fellow Black artist named by the title who becomes a mirror in which Betts can examine his life in relation to his son. Williams was a compelling film and television actor, who, like Betts, faced circumstances that made him painfully vulnerable. He died of a drug overdose in 2021. Betts wonders:

How to be that kind of honest: inventing,
Within the moment, everything that matters.
I want to be somebody’s child again,

I feel as though Betts is telling me he wishes to return to a youth he maybe never had, the one he was robbed of at age 16, when he robbed another man and lost nine years for a choice made in one afternoon. He speaks of Williams as inspiration rather than caution for the son, but then turns inward to reflect on precarity, freedom constrained, joy under threat. “Maybe nothing saves, save / Being a witness to someone else moving so free.” In Betts’ world beyond the literal walls, freedom is found in relationship, but freedom is never secured.

This deeply personal thread runs through Redaction alongside the collective and the historical, but the project, beginning with the title itself, operates equally as an abstract philosophical statement about language as technology of power. On a concrete level, redaction is a retroactive editing process to remove confidential material. But politically, redaction is a tool used by those with control over official language to obscure, distort. elide and erase truth that might undercut their power. From this vantage point, every narrative history, by the information an author chooses to include and exclude is theoretically a redaction. Most overtly and destructively today, we see the public campaign by right-wing forces to suppress curriculum in public schools that tells the difficult truths of American racial history, banning texts such as The 1619 Project, which contends that slavery was the defining force driving early American history. Such redaction whitewashes history, as Kaphar does in reverse, by turning the tables to whitewash historical paintings so that they might surface the Black subjects whose bodies have been possessed and painted out of the public American story. “The lesson of owning // Begins with erasure,” Betts notes.

By commenting on such historical erasure in a format that reflects its messages, Betts and Kaphar converse with other lyrical and rhetorical erasure poems that use source documents to address racial themes. Tracy Smith’s 2018 “Declaration” erases the “Declaration of Independence,” a document that proclaims the rights and freedom of white men, while denying women and the enslaved beneath the phrase “all men are created equal.” M. Nourbese Phillp’s book-length poem cycle, “Zong!” (2008) erases 18th Century court documents from a case in which slavers threw captive Africans off a ship to collect insurance. Nicole Sealey’s recently published The Ferguson Report: An Erasure which relates directly to the police practices integral to the carceral system. Redaction, however, foregrounds the documents over the lyric that is sculpted from the text and makes the tension between document and poem more rhetorically direct. The lawsuit pages are facsimiles and their redactions are tactile, hand-drawn to remind us of the human presence that is reinforced by Kaphar’s portraits.

On yet another level, Redaction comments on the political power of typeface as the constituent object of text. The artists commissioned designers Jeremy Michael and Forest Young to create a new typeface that alters standard fonts used in legal documents, such as Century Schoolbook. Why invent a new typeface when the standard forms are perfectly legible? Symbolically, such fonts, as the print tools so often used to oppress through law, have themselves become corrupted entities. In “Ghazal,” Betts’ poem that celebrates and comments on the politics of his collaboration with Kaphar, the typeface of the first line looks deteriorated, but gradually sharpens until reaching the final 14th line, suggesting that the material pieces of the project itself are bringing truth into focus. The new font that is used throughout the book wipes the page clean. And by making the font open-source online, the artists are symbolically democratizing a liberating device to write text that promotes social justice.

“In prison, a letter is called / A kite, as if words alone can gift / A man wings, Betts writes in “Some Joy.” Poetry and letters can, at least spiritually, help save the individual lives of those who have been in prison. But by themselves poetry and letters can do little to reform the deep structures of the carceral system. Maybe the poetry and letters that Glenn McGinnis wrote brought his soul some peace, as they helped Betts to remain in touch with his humanity in law school and beyond. But these writings didn’t save McGinnis from execution. One message I take with me from Redaction is that arts & letters, while limited in their impact compared to verdicts and legislation, can be a compelling, and maybe essential, a medium for sensitizing us against the mind-numbing statistics that quantify this country’s 500-year addiction to shackling dark bodies.


[1] United States Government Accounting Office, K-12 Education: Student Population Has Significantly Diversified, But Many Schools Remain Divided Along Racial, Ethnic, and Economic Lines (Washington D.C.: GAO, 2022), https://www.gao.gov/assets/gao-22-104737.pdf.

[2] Stephen Menendian, Samir Gambhir and Arthur Gailes, Twenty-First Century Racial Residential Segregation in the United States (Berkeley: University of California, Berkeley Other and Belonging Institute, 2021), https://belonging.berkeley.edu/roots-structural-racism.

[3] United States Department of Justice Civil Rights Division, Investigation of the Ferguson Police Department (Washington D.C.: USDJ/CRD, 2015), 4, 6, 7. www.justice.gov/sites/default/files/opa/press-releases/attachments/2015/03/04/ferguson_police_department_report.pdf.

[4] Mike Wessler, “Updated Charts Provide Insights on Racial Disparities, Correctional Control, Jail, Suicides, and More” (Prison Policy Initiative, 2022), https://www.prisonpolicy.org/blog/2022/05/19/updated_charts/.

Emily Widra and Tiana Herring, “States of Incarceration: The Global Context 2021” (Prison Policy Initiative, 2021), https://www.prisonpolicy.org/global/2021.html.

[5] Thoai Liu, “Michelle Alexander: More Black Men in Prison Than Were Enslaved in 1850 ,” Colorlines, March 2011. https://colorlines.com/article/michelle-alexander-more-black-men-prison-were-enslaved-1850/.

[6] Equal Justice Initiative, “Fugitive Slave Acts,”  https://eji.org/news/history-racial-injustice-fugitive-slave-acts/.

[7] United States Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2018 Update on Prisoner Recidivism: A 9-Year Follow-up Period (Washington D.C.: USDJ/BJS, 2018), https://bjs.ojp.gov/content/pub/pdf/18upr9yfup0514.pdf.

[8] The Jefferson Monticello, “The Life if Sally Hemings” https://www.monticello.org/sallyhemings/

[9] Some poems in Redaction originally appeared in Betts’ poetry volume Felon (W.W. Norton & Company, 2019).