ATLANTA, Georgia (CNN) -- Thirty minutes on a dark December night in 1996 left R. Dwayne Betts irrevocably changed.
It was the first time Betts, known as a smart, straight-edge and funny guy, had ever held a gun. The pistol fit snugly into the hands of the 16-year-old, who tapped gently on the window of a dark green Pontiac Grand Prix. The noise startled the middle-aged man sleeping in the car.
In just 30 minutes, Betts committed his first crimes: an armed robbery and carjacking. They were felonies that landed the teenager in Virginia's adult prisons for nearly nine years.
"I've seen documentaries on prison, and I can name movies and books about prison," said Betts, now 28. "I don't think any of them actually capture the sound of a cell door closing and realizing you can't go home."
What Betts did behind bars -- and when the cell door finally opened nine years later -- is a remarkable story. Tattooed with a violent felony record, he nonetheless attended the University of Maryland in College Park and did so well that he was chosen as the commencement speaker in May.
How did he achieve near-perfect grades and win a scholarship for a full ride to graduate school?
Betts' memoir, "A Question of Freedom," released last month, chronicles the lessons he learned in prison and how he managed to turn his life around.
Some might say the odds were stacked against Betts. He was the son of a convicted felon, raised by a single mother. Drug deals and robberies were commonplace in his Suitland, Maryland, neighborhood. "I didn't really have any outlets," Betts explained.
He appears very different today, dressed in a sharp black suit on his book tour, than he did as a streetwise teenager.
His arrest in 1996 made him another statistic. Betts became one of hundreds of thousands of teens who are in the U.S. juvenile justice system. Of the offenders, federal studies show, a large percentage of the offenders percent are black.
Early on, his defense attorney made it known that the seriousness of his crime would probably place him in the adult prison system, even though no one was hurt in the robbery.
But Betts wasn't the only juvenile locked up with adults. On the bus to Southampton Correctional Center, an adult corrections facility, he rode with a dozen other juveniles sharing similar fears of entering prison.