- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 24, 2019

A convicted murderer at 16 years old, author of 11 books, poet, burgeoning fashion mogul, outspoken proponent of President Trump’s criminal justice reform.

It may seem impossible that one person could hold so many titles, but almost everything about Halim Flowers can be called impossible.

And the 39-year-old lifelong Washingtonian is just getting started. He’s set his sights on two more dreams that may seem implausible: becoming a billionaire and changing how America thinks about prisons.

“We need to put programs inside the institutions that get people becoming viable entrepreneurs or employees in this global market,” Mr. Flowers told The Washington Times. “There should not be a law in place that someone can’t get a certain license because they have a felony. That’s one thing I like about Republican theory — minimum regulation.”

Marc Howard, founding director of Georgetown University’s Prisons and Justice Initiative, first met Mr. Flowers while teaching a class at the D.C. jail and continues to be inspired by him.

“He is the living embodiment of everything I believe in, which is people are capable of doing much more than the worst thing they’ve done,” he said. “It is a tremendous story of human growth and transformation.”

At 16, Mr. Flowers was thrown away, sentenced to 40 years to life in prison after being convicted of murder, although prosecutors concede he didn’t pull the trigger.

A teen crack dealer, Mr. Flowers robbed three men at gunpoint inside a Northeast Washington apartment, according to court documents.

Exiting the apartment, the men jumped him and a melee ensued. The gun went off but did not hit anyone. Mr. Flowers fled with the gun, but no money.

He and another friend were enraged the robbery was foiled and returned to the apartment. Another fight broke out and one of the men, Elvern Cooper, ran into his bedroom, prosecutors said. Mr. Flowers’ friend fired three times through the bedroom door, hitting Cooper, who died days later.

Mr. Flowers insists he did not return to the apartment.

Nonetheless, he was convicted because in the District of Columbia, like in most American and British jurisdictions, anyone involved in a felony that results in death can be prosecuted for murder.

“I didn’t go to prison the first day I committed a crime. It was a trajectory,” he said.

Roughly two years into his sentence, Mr. Flowers discovered the work of George Jackson, a 1960s activist whose writings from prison were compiled into a collection of books.

“Just seeing how his words were received by the world had an impact,” he said. “He was inside of a cell, but he developed himself in a way that his ideas were so valuable that people all over the world consumed what he had to say. It taught me that my ideas have value.”

“It was now my task to find a way to articulate them and get them out into the world,” he continued. “That is what kept me going.”

Mr. Flowers vowed to educate himself. He gobbled up every newspaper and book available in the prison library. The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, biographies, books about finance, politics, physics and math all became part of his daily reading.

The words leaped off the page, inspiring him. While incarcerated, Mr. Flowers wrote and published 11 books, including memoirs about his time in prison, self-help books and four collections of poetry.

Mr. Howard said that when he first met Mr. Flowers, the young convict stood out from the prison crowd.

“Intellectually, Halim has a tremendous amount of firepower, but he is a generous, caring loving person who I got along with immediately,” Mr. Howard said. “If you can’t appreciate Halim, you can’t appreciate anyone.”

The former pupil’s story also has inspired Mr. Howard’s current Georgetown students and a Duke University law professor whose writings Mr. Flowers addressed in an essay.

“He embodies grace and compassion,” said Mr. Howard.

In March, Mr. Flowers was released from jail through a new law that allows for review of cases involving people who’ve been sentenced as juveniles and served at least 20 years.

Now a free man, Mr. Flowers mentors incarcerated youths and pushes for sentencing reform.

Mr. Trump earlier this year signed into law the most significant criminal justice changes in years. Known as the First Step Act, the law reduced mandatory minimum sentences and allowed hundreds of thousands of prisoners to be released or have their terms shortened.

The law is a good start, Mr. Flowers said. But warned that if America is serious about reducing the incarceration rate, the best solutions are economic ones.

He has become a passionate campaigner for private-sector investment in poor communities and equipping prisoners with entrepreneurial skills.

Black people account for 13% of the U.S. population, but only own 7% of the businesses across the country, according to 2018 statistics from the U.S. Census Bureau. In Washington, where black people are nearly 50% of the population, they own only 28% of the city’s businesses.

Those statistics need to change if there is to be a meaningful reduction in crime, Mr. Flowers said.

“When you drive along New York Ave., you see these young guys selling water and Gatorade in 100-degree weather,” he said. “We know they are willing to work. We know they have drive, ambition and salesmanship. They don’t have entrepreneur mentorship or investment.”

Mr. Flowers’ story is proof that others can become business-savvy.

Growing up in Washington’s rough Woodland Terrace neighborhood with a father who was addicted to crack, Mr. Flowers taught himself financial policy while in prison.

“When you live blocks away from the Federal Reserve, International Monetary Fund and World Bank and you don’t know what these institutions do and you come from a household where your parents don’t have checking or savings accounts, these are things that lead to crime,” he said.

While incarcerated, Mr. Flowers became frustrated with the courses available. For example, the prison offered agriculture classes in urban Washington.

Mr. Flowers, who travels in progressive, liberal circles, eschews political labels. He has pointed criticism for Democrats whom he says have done little for the black community.

“Just because I’m black, I wouldn’t be a Democrat because you look at all the inner cities —the black people are suffering socially and economically in those Democrat-led cities,” he said. “So the party has failed us tremendously.”

Others in the black community also are becoming disenfranchised with Democrats, he insists.

“I believe African Americans are looking at the parties differently,” he said. “A lot of people are seeing their lives really didn’t improve through eight years of Obama.”

“Now Trump has been in office for nearly four years and I ask people what law did he enact that has deteriorated the quality of your life, and they can’t,” he said. “I can’t see any law that he’s passed that had a negative impact on me.”

Tax reform and opportunity zones to spur private investments in underprivileged communities are among the Trump proposals Mr. Flower ticked off as positives.

His message to the black community in 2020 is to educate themselves about the candidates and how their policies will affect day-to-day lives.

“I really want African Americans to look at the plans all of the candidates are offering in 2020 and not just look at party,” he said. “It’s not about a party, it’s about how policies will improve your lives.”

Mr. Flowers said the Republicans are missing an opportunity within the black community by not promoting former House Speaker Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin.

“Paul Ryan has what we call in the black community ‘swag,’” he said. “He reminds me of John Kennedy and I think he has the political savvy to get the black vote.”

Although he possesses a strong interest in politics, Mr. Flowers says he’s not ready for that arena. He’s too busy trying to get his fashion line off the ground, working with incarcerated youth and hobnobbing with Kim Kardashian West.

“People are always going to thumb their nose at people like [me,]” he said. “Those who see people who see human beings as deserving of love will continue to work with those who agree with them and disagree with them.”

• Jeff Mordock can be reached at jmordock@washingtontimes.com.

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