Arnold Ventures intern Dieungoc Nguyen contributed to this story.
At 16, Halim Flowers found himself sentenced to 40 years to life in prison.
More than 20 years later, Flowers has authored 11 books while serving time, mentored incarcerated youths through D.C.'s Young Men Emerging program, and co-founded Unchained Media Collective, a production and media arts company focused on telling the stories of currently or formerly incarcerated people.
Flowers was released from the D.C. jail on March 21, 2019, through the Incarceration Reduction Amendment Act of 2016, which allows individuals to petition for case review before the D.C. Superior Court. Individuals must have been sentenced as a juvenile, have served at least 20 years in prison, and have not yet had parole.
Since his release, Flowers has been a notable advocate for criminal justice reform. As he says, "Nowadays, the Civil War isn’t fought through muskets and cannons, it’s being fought through lobbyists, legislatures, and laws." In the following interview, Flowers shares his story, discusses current and future media projects, and offers suggestions on how reform-minded organizations can tackle criminal justice reform more effectively.
The conversation below has been edited for length.
'This is the future of corrections'
Halim Flowers was part of Young Men Emerging in the D.C. Department of Corrections. This in-depth short film takes you inside the unit to learn how they build community and help members take ownership of their stories.
Can you tell us your story?
I was born on September 1, 1980 in Washington, D.C. Unfortunately, in the mid-80s, crack cocaine was introduced to America and in particular, D.C. You can’t tell my story without telling the story of crack cocaine.
I come from a two-parent household. I had a sheltered, good, two-parent upbringing. I was born a Muslim in a Muslim family. My father got addicted to crack cocaine, and that was my first trauma. Your father is the closest thing to God. Losing him and everybody around me losing their parents to crack cocaine was hard.
How did your father start losing himself?
You have to understand that cocaine was a sign of status. It still is. When crack cocaine came, people thought it would be an extension to coke. Look at the importance of cinema, music, and culture in America. In my father’s generation, an influential movie was “Scarface” The movies and music reflected what was really going on in the inner city communities at that time. We were watching movies like “Colors,” “Original Gangstas,” and “Menace II Society” and listening to the soundtracks. The music and movies are a reflection. Art imitates life and life imitates art. As a young child and now an adult, I can reflect on the impact these songs and movies had on me.
When crack came, it took down our whole country. In particular, our city. For me, it broke the fabric of my house and community. With the crack cocaine era starting in ’88 and ’89, D.C. had the highest murder rate per capita of any city in America from ’88 to ’97. In between ’88 to ’97, you had 10,000 people murdered in the D.C. area.
We were raised in these communities and losing our elders and village. Once you lose respect for your elders, you lose the village. Now you have the guns, the money, the drugs, so the community is flipped upside down. You have this violence.
At 11, I took my PSAT. I was always academically gifted, but that was not celebrated in my community. Nobody threw a party for me because I was taking my PSAT at 11.
I was born in the beginning of Reaganomics, so it wasn’t just greed with crack cocaine. You also had greed on Wall Street. You had these big names like Michael Milken, Ivan Boesky, corporate security frauds. Oliver North and Reagan selling guns to the Nicaraguan Contras.
Everybody was greedy, and people were getting killed. The ’80s were a transformative decade. That’s why I titled my autobiography "Makings of a MENACE, CONTRITION of a Man." Now as an adult, I can take a step back and examine the external factors that developed me into a menace to society. Other than that, I was a smart, good kid.
You created your own publishing company while in prison, and now you have a company called Unchained Media. Can you tell us how those came to be and what you learned?
The smartest thing about me is that when I want to do something, I have the humility to listen to those who’ve done it. George Jackson, a famous prison writer from the ’50s and ’60s, once wrote that the greatest influence a man can ever have comes from the woman he admires the most. For my publishing company, when I was 16 at the D.C. jail, Blowback Productions filmed a documentary about children in adult jail, showcasing me and another young guy named Andre Boneau. It won an Emmy award and was on HBO. A lot of girls started writing me.
One girl in particular started writing me articulately. She’s so smart. In her letter, she writes, “I’m a poetist.” But at that time, I just wrote rap songs, so I lied, saying, “I write poetry, too.” Then I started writing her poems and she started to come see me. She was 23, a single mother, an intellect, had her own place, and was revolutionary. She was light years ahead of me in maturity.
Education comes from the word “educed,” which means to extract out. She educated me to be the poet that I am. I wanted to impress her and she pulled that out of me. That’s how I started writing poetry. I read some of my poetry at a spoken word event in 2002, 2003. I’d been in jail for six years then. After I finished the performance, a lot of the older guys said, “You should write a book.”
I agreed. But I didn’t know how I was going to do that. Then I met a guy who became my mentor, named Michael Norwood, an incarcerated author with his own publishing company. He showed me how to structure and write. My mother worked at the Library of Congress, so the copyright process was easily facilitated for me.
I did my first book. I mailed it to the Library of Congress, but after that, my mother would go downstairs with all my other books. She knew the people. They found out what I was doing, read my poetry, and wanted to be involved with it, so the universe conspired to do everything to help me facilitate that.
I just wanted to share my poetry and my story with the world. I titled my first book “Reason to Breathe” because I felt like everything in the world was against me, but even though I had two life sentences, I still had a purpose. From there, I started coming out with many books.
But as I aged, I learned that one of the purposes of the system is to make you invisible and mute. The system knows that if you’re unseen and unheard then it’s easy for your loved ones and the world to forget about you. Then they can make you a commodity.
They have contracts — how many D.C. prisons get a certain amount of money. You’re paying for your emails 5 cents a minute, to call, to listen to music on the MP3. You become a business. I realized this through reading about historical figures in this country and throughout the world, what they were able to do with their pen and voice, and how they were able to move people through literature. That’s what encouraged me to write.
With the media production company, Unchained Media, I met [Kristin] Adair, who was a photographer and a lawyer. When we met, she was starting a fellowship with Halcyon. In 2017, she came out with a documentary about becoming free. It centered on three youth from D.C. who were charged as adults and returned as citizens and lived in the probation process. I came to her and asked, “How about we create a replica of my cell when I was 17?” That’s how we came up with the Cell 17 Multimedia installation for By the People Festival, starting with my story.
You go in a cell, sit on a bunk, see the video of us talking about decades-long experiences. We came in as children and served over 20 years. You see our pictures all over the cell.
What’s it been like being back in the city and knowing that it’s changed so dramatically in the last 20 years? What does that spark for you?
From an aesthetic perspective, I love it. It looks better. It’s safer. The only thing I have against it is I believe law-abiding, working-class citizens who contribute to the fabric of the city, who do our dry-cleaning or clean our dog shit — I believe we have a right to affordable housing in the city. It seems like that’s not happening. I’ve only been home for four months, so I don’t know all that’s going on, but I know people are complaining about being pushed out because of pricing.
I’m not anti-capitalist, but I believe capitalism should be approached from a sense of morality. We don’t need to share religion to empathize with the person who serves us our Starbucks. They shouldn’t have to commute all the way from Maryland, where they’re already low-income.
What I want to do as an artist is to make sure that my voice is heard at the table when we’re having discussions with developers and legislators, especially artists, who are the most creative, out-of-the-box thinkers.
Because I live in the high-income area now, I see things. I see people pay people to clean their house, nannies for their kids, walk their dogs. All these people are low-income, but they’re integral to people’s daily lives and well-being — so why wouldn’t I want them to be my neighbor?
You were talking about affordable housing as a way toward reform. Do you have any ideas or visions for criminal justice reform? What are the biggest things people are overlooking?
I don’t think people are overlooking anything. That’s the biggest misconception.
The system is working the way it’s intended for those who profit from it. When we approach it from the perspective that it’s broken, that’s why we can’t find a solution. We have to admit that people profit from this, just as people profited from slavery, and they don’t want this to be different than what it is today.
Nowadays, the Civil War isn’t fought through muskets and cannons, it’s being fought through lobbyists, legislatures, and laws. There are people who have contracts, you have these unions with correctional officers fighting to stay perpetuated. They want their industry to grow. It may have racial implications, but when you look at it, slavery was economic first. Then race was used to perpetuate it.
For criminal justice reform, I encourage you to look at it from an economic perspective. Who’s profiting? Start going after those entities. I think it’s the same thing Dr. King did with the bus boycotts. Once the unnamed, domestic workers who were going to work in the upper class began de-investing in buses, the buses saw how much money they lost and were willing to compromise. As long as we can call it a social issue, they don’t care.
You encouraged us to start looking at this from an economic perspective. What should groups like Arnold Ventures be thinking about when working to transform the criminal justice system and make our approach more effective?
One of the mentors at Young Men Emerging (YME) says that those closest to the problem are closest to the solutions. What you have going on is organizations are investing in criminal justice reform and re-entry.
But no one on their staff has been a criminal or been in prison. No one on their staff has re-entered society after returning from prison. That’s a problem.
Theoretically, your ideas make sense. But in prison, I know this won’t be implemented by the prison staff. Those who have direct experience and who are actively working in the field, especially those who have formal education, I think they should be employed, and if not employed, at least funded as consultants to do the work. As an individual, you can be dynamic, but your performance is not as impactful because you have economic restraints.
One thing I’ve been studying is what happens when you lock me up at the age of 16. In those formative years, from 16 to 25, you’re feeding people who are incarcerated garbage. Their bodies and brains are not getting the proper nutrients they need for the frontal lobe to function. Now you’re seeing why the recidivism rate is so high. You’re starving people. By keeping them in an incarcerated state, you’re not [helping] them face the day-to-day social situations that help them learn how to be an efficient adult in the world.
There are many things in the community and in the prisons that are definitely socioeconomic. If the economics is right, people are not thinking about robbing your iPhone or shoes, because they can afford their iPhone and their shoes. They’re poor. It’s intergenerational poverty, drug and alcohol abuse. Many things can develop our children into criminals. We have to seriously look at the economics.
You can’t tell me when I’m 16 and we’re poor that I have to wait until I graduate from high school, go to college, get student debt, go to graduate school, get more student debt. I have to wait for all of this just to make some money? There’s a statistic that shows that African Americans with graduate school degrees make 30-40% less than their white counterparts. So these young ones are saying, “What the hell, I’m going to go through all of that and still get short-changed?”
My solution is literacy, arts, and some tech centers. One thing about the tech industry is that you don’t have to go through school for four years. They want more minority representation. They’re willing to fund minority ideas. Youths don’t have to take on student loan debt or wait. Poverty is vicious on a child. I want to be able to come to them and say, “You can go to this center. I have people from these universities that’s going to teach you how to code and make your own apps. You don’t have to go through college. You can get certification in 12 weeks.” You can get this during high school.
When you finish high school and you want to work for somebody, you can start right out and make $50,000 a year. Now you have a skill set before you leave high school. You might even want to earn a GED early, too. We need to start considering these options. No one wants to go through 12 years of school. People want to make money. If they’re not making any money, they’re going to break the law.
You discussed how people in YME have great emotional intelligence. Talk about how you were able to build that space in YME where people felt safe to open up. And how we can build that in the community?
The unique thing about prison is that your worst moment is public record. Now, I can talk to you with a level of transparency and authenticity and build. By us being mentors, all of us having decades in prison, we’re not remotely the same person that did what we did, so by approaching these young guys with that level of transparency and authenticity, and even administration and staff, it becomes infectious consciously or subconsciously. A lot of the young guys are not used to talking to older men that just talk to them. People don’t talk. They text, so when they are approached by older men who are sharing their worst experiences with them and letting them know that like, “I know you. I was you. I did what you did. And that’s why I did it. Now you know my trauma.” Then the young guys can relate.
It’s important people feel comfortable revealing their worst moments. Then we can start talking about envisioning something better. Being a part of society can hurt, because now instead of me being who I really am, I have to be what you want me to be. If I tell you who I really am, you might reject me and that might be traumatizing. Now I’m keeping those parts of me in prison to the point that that trauma grows like a cancer.
My platform is love. We need to love ourselves unapologetically. We need to love those who love us. We’re humans. We carry pain and trauma. If you love me and you’re my family or friend, then this is who I am. I love you as you are. I have to share this with you. It’s weighing, and I need your advice.
Once you can build on that love and those who love you, then you can start loving people who hate you, because you understand that they’re hurting.
You and your mentees evolved during your time with YME. What are some of your proudest moments?
My proudest moment is with Joel Castón, whom I met in 2001 in prison. He taught me financial literacy and showed me kindness. But we soon parted ways.
In 2016, I was so happy when I bumped back into him. I benefited so much from his presence. I’m good at the intellectual part, but Joel (who works with YME) helped me to be better with what I’m doing with Unchained Media Collective, to think as a whole. That was my proudest moment, that I had the open-mindedness and humility to accept the limitations in my individualistic thinking and think holistically. It’s been amazing to work with YME. YME is unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. I will never forget August 10, 2018. That was when I was accepted into YME. I love what Joel and Mike continue to do with it.
Now that I’m removed from it, I can’t fathom or conceptualize that the young men who are incarcerated are still there. Why are they still in there?
What I’m doing, since I’ve been in the community, Echoing Green Fellowship, Halcyon Fellowship — I’m doing good. I can only imagine what they can do in the community with resources.
There are still many young people in prison. Do you have any advice for them?
The greatest advice you can give anyone, whether they’re in prison or not, is to love yourself, even if you find yourself in an institutional system that devalues your life. Being there, you find yourself in the custody of those who treat you inhumanely, so you must have the integrity to love yourself, and even though those around you can’t fathom it, you have to see the value of your life.
If Dr. King and Malcolm X came home and did what they did, then you can do greater things. Recognize your value. We don’t attract what we want but what we are. My mentor, Michael Norwood, helped me realize that my book and my company were only results of what was already within me. Your story is your intellectual property. Everybody has some gift that will get you through life. It will make sure that you get everything you need. Even an individual like me who had two life sentences had something that was going to get me out and make me successful. I just had to find it and claim it.
Know that your educational value is nothing you’re going to get from Georgetown or Harvard. Your education is what’s coming out of you. Sure, the professor will pour into you, but everything they’re pouring in is to educe something out of you. It’s already in you, your DNA.