WARNING: The following content could be disturbing for sensitive readers.
This article is an exclusive interview with Halim Flowers, a 36-year-old who lives in a federal prison in California. Students in Oklahoma Baptist University’s criminal justice class were allowed to ask Flowers questions via email. To read the story on Flowers, click here.
- Where did you grow up?
“I was born on September 1st, 1980, just two months before Ronald Reagan was elected as the President of the United States. Birthed at George Washington University hospital in downtown Washington, D.C., I was raised in the nation’s capital during the turbulent 80’s that ushered in Reaganomics and the introduction of “Crack” cocaine into the urban inner-city communities in America. Before D.C. was given its current cosmopolitan cosmetic makeover, the nation’s capital was plagued by illegal drug trafficking, a destitute infrastructure, and a national high murder and incarceration rate. Even the Mayor Marion Barry was arrested and imprisoned for smoking crack cocaine. That is where I grew up.”
2. Can you recount the occurrences of the day you were arrested? What exactly happened?
“The day that I was arrested, January 20, 1997, I was attending a college recruit lecture inside of the library of my high school, Phelps Vocational School. Bored by the dry delivery of the collegiate representative, I dozed off during the presentation. A few minutes later, a school security guard woke me up and told me to step outside into the hallway. Once I entered the hallway, still half asleep, I was greeted by the sight of over a dozen overzealous police officers and detectives. Swiftly handcuffed, I was escorted out of the building and placed inside of a squad car without any explanation as to why I was being arrested.
I was taken downtown to what I would later learn was the Homicide Branch’s office. After being cuffed to a chair for over eight hours without any access to an attorney or parental guardian, a homicide detective informed me that I was being charged as an adult for first degree felony murder. Initially, I laughed at him because I was certain that I had never killed anyone before. He told me that he knew that my friend had been responsible for pulling the trigger, but that being as though that I was with him when the burglary occurred that if I did not help him to convict the shooter that I would spend the rest of my life in prison. I just kept laughing because I was completely ignorant to the harsh reality of the accomplice liability doctrine of felony murder. Once I was transported to the adult D.C. Jail as a 16 year young child weighing under 100 pounds, my two decade long nightmare had begun.”
3. What kind of attitude did the police and courts have? What is your impression of their demeanor?
“The police attitude was strictly a “scare-tactic” approach to get me to assist them with convicting the shooter. They kept reminding me that I was going to spend the rest of my life in prison if I did not assist them, telling me how violent the juvenile range was at the adult D.C. Jail and how I would be raped and stabbed because I was so small in stature, and denying my requests to speak with my attorney or mother.
The courts lacked any discretion to express any attitude once the U.S. Attorney’s office had charged me under D.C. Code Title 16 Section 2301(3)(a), which automatically transfers 16 and 17 year olds to the adult Felony Branch of D.C. Superior Court without any hearings to determine any suitability for juvenile status or treatment. So, the “legislative waiver” nature Title 16 voided any expression of attitude from the courts. It was a straight “school-to-prison pipeline” machine connected directly to the wastelands of the prison industrial complex.”
4. Did you go to trial in a court room? If so, who defended you?
“Yes, my trial was held publicly inside of the courtroom of Judge Harold Cushenberry Jr. at the Superior Court of the District of Columbia(Criminal Case Number F-631-97 – United States v. Halim Flowers). My trial attorney was Michelle Roberts; she is now the executive director of the NBA Players Union. My prosecutor was Albert Herring, who is now a professor at Harvard University.”
5. Did you have a previous record before this offense?
“I had two juvenile adjudications prior to this offense. The first was for shooting two teenagers when I was 15. One of the victims had tried to attack me with a knife months before when I was with two of my friends mothers. The other victim was shot by a bullet that went through the guy that had tried to stab me. My second adjudication was for assaulting a guy that tried to rape me inside of the group home where I was being held while awaiting trial for the first adjudication. I was given probation for both offenses due to my lack of criminal history.”
6. Do you think your sentence is fair? If not, what would you give instead?
“I honestly cannot say what is a “fair” sentencing for a case where my choices led to another person losing their life “unfairly”. I cannot think in terms of a numerical value being a just punishment for an offender affiliated with a murder, nor do I believe that the imprisonment of the offender is a fair compensation to the victim and their loved ones.
In my case, there are certain variables that should have been considered during my sentencing:
A)I was child when my crime was committed. Title 16 should not have completely taken my legal status as a “child” from me as a minor under the age of 18.
B)I was not charged as being the actual shooter, and the shooter in this case had all of the charges dismissed against him and was never tried for the shooting. Even though I was directly responsible for the burglary, I never shot the victim nor intended for anyone to be killed in my case.
C)First degree felony murder, during the time of my offense, imposed a “mandatory” life term of imprisonment without eligibility for parole until “30 years” are served in prison. As a juvenile, I believe, as the recent passage of the Comprehensive Youth Justice Amendment Act of 2016 – D.C. Act 21-568 by D.C. legislators demonstrates, that a child should not be given any sentence without periodical reviews to determine if they have demonstrated remorse for their offense, rehabilitation from their criminal behaviors, and maturation that illustrates their suitability for a transition back into society to continue to repair the harms that they have caused to their victims and communities.
Therefore, if I could impose the sentence in my case, I would impose a term of imprisonment that would not exceed my 40th birth date, with a review for release every 5 years after I have served at least 10 years in prison. I don’t believe that no minor should be imprisoned for an offense that occurs before they are the age of 21.”
7. I know you have written to Judge Beck and are set to go to court in D.C. soon. What are the possible outcomes of that court date?
“The bill that I mentioned above, D.C. Act 21-568, allows juveniles sentenced to long terms through D.C. Code in D.C. Superior Court to have a hearing for sentence reduction after they have served 20 years in prison. If their petition is denied, they can file again for sentence modification 5 years later after serving 25 years. If they are denied again, they can file 5 years later after serving 30 years. There is no other opportunity to file another application after serving 30 years, which appears to me that no children in the District will not serve no more than 30 years, hopefully.
In my case, I have taken extraordinary strides to rehabilitate myself educationally, vocationally, and socially by publishing 10 books that I use to work with various nonprofit organizations throughout the country to help at-risk youth and youthful offenders. I haven’t incurred any disciplinary infractions in the last 13 years, so I am optimistic about my judge Ronna Beck giving serious consideration to releasing me back to society when the bill takes effect in April 2017.”
8. In your opinion, what is, and what should be, the goal of incarceration?
“I believe the goal for incarceration should be to detain an offender from their criminal activity, to restore the harm done to victims and their loved ones by establishing “victim-offender reconciliation” councils with the involvement of victims, offenders, their loved ones, and representatives of the community, and to prepare offenders to contribute to their communities through civic awareness and engagement. Instead of a “punishment” first approach, the carceral experience should focus on “repairing” the harm done to victims, their loved ones, and to society, so that offenders can fully understand the harms that they have caused and their responsibility as offenders to “restore” the rights of those that they have offended.”
9. What do you wish you had known at age 15 that could have changed the trajectory of your life?
“At the age of 15, I wish I would have known that it was more to the world, more to my own city, than the hip-hop/inner-city/thug-drug gun violence culture that I was so infatuated with at that time of my life. I was so blinded by my subculture marginalized uninformed reality from the mainstream predominate American culture that did not exist in my neighborhood at that time. The movies and music all bombarded me with the glorification of selling drugs, senseless gun violence, and misogyny. If I could expose my 15 year young self to the global perspective that I have today, I could have used my intelligence and ambition for success more humanely. I just didn’t value life properly back then.”
10. What would you tell someone who finds themselves in similar circumstances that you have learned during your time away that could help them to recapture their life?
“I would tell them to use the internet to explore the world beyond the poverty and hopelessness that surrounds them. We did not have the internet when I was younger, nor did we have social media, apps, search engines, or smartphones, so our perception of the world was confined to only what we could “see” in our chaotic immediate environment. Therefore, I encourage at-risk youth to build relationships with people all over the world online their age so that they can “see” that there are others in the world living in far worst conditions than they are in Chiraq, Bodymore, and Killadelphia. I’m convinced that once I can get a youth to appreciate their own life even more that they will begin to appreciate the lives of others more as well. In essence, all crime is the lack of appreciation and respect for the person and property rights of others. So, I give at-risk youth a broader vision and a vivid appreciation for life.”
11. How does prison compare to how it is portrayed in media and on TV?
“The perception of prison in the media and TV is so vast in their presentation of the reality of prison life and culture. The imagery varies depending upon the genre of the content and audience. Entertainment material will create content that “entertains”, so a comedy skit may promote certain prison myths that are exaggerated or false. Conversely, documentaries such the Emmy award winning film that I was featured in titled “Thug Life In D.C.” accurately depicted what it is like to be a child in a chaotic adult prison system. However, I did get to view “Orange Is The New Black” and I think that a lot of it is accurate in its portrayal of prison.”
12. Since you have been incarcerated since age 16, how have you been able to educate yourself from behind bars?
“I read everything! Wall Street Journal newspapers and magazines, New York Times, the Washington Post, all are great sources of education for me. Plus, I have a crush on female new anchors, so I binge watch CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC. I read lot of literature, mainly biographies, history, finance, history, and self help. Also, I study physics, politics, and math. I think that I’m addicted to learning.”
13. If you could change anything about the justice process (from initial contact with police through sentencing and incarceration) what would it be and why?
“If I could change anything about our nation’s criminal justice system it would be to repeal all federal and state “punitive centered” policies and laws and replace them with the principles and methods of ‘Restorative Justice.’ I’m a BIG advocate for ‘Restorative Justice.'”
14. Are you rewarded for good behavior in prison? What is that like?
“The only incentives for good behavior in the federal prison system is 47 days of good time credit per year and placement in a lower security institution. With a life sentence, I cannot earn any good time credit days nor can I ever be placed in a ‘low’ security prison.”
15. Have you met people with similar situations to yours in prison?
“The unique situation about being a D.C. prisoner is that all of us are sent to the Federal Bureau of Prisons. So, even though I am from D.C., I am currently in a high security federal penitentiary in California. Wherefore, I have met guys here from Hawaii, Nevada, and California that were given life sentences as juveniles, as well as three other guys from D.C. that were given life sentences under the age of 18 also. One of the guys from D.C. was the youngest prisoner ever sent to the federal supermax ADX prison in Florence, Colorado, where he was held solitary confinement for 20 years from the age of 19 to 39. So, I meet people from all over the world that have similar situations to mine. The Somalian pirates from the Captain Phillips film are even here with me.”
16. You seem motivated and fairly positive. What keeps you going?
“What keeps me going? My vision. I have a vision for myself helping others internationally. As Victor Frankel saw himself lecturing globally about his experiences while he was still in the concentration camps during World War II, I can see myself using this horrific ordeal to help others transcend their adversities in life. A lot of health and wealth will come out of this situation for me. It is a hope in the unseen known to us simply as faith. Not blind faith, but a faith that is fueled by a vision of clarity.”