From behind prison bars, publisher Halim Flowers plans a fashionable exit
Halim Flowers poses with his books.
The UpTake: Halim Flowers has accomplished more than many entrepreneurs all from within the walls if a prison. And even though he has his eyes set on fashion, his heart is still with helping young people in trouble with the law.
T his call is from a federal prison,” the computerized voice repeatedly warned me during my two 15-minute phone conversations with entrepreneur Halim Flowers, a convicted criminal serving 30 years to life at the United States Penitentiary in Atlanta.
Flowers, who as a teenager was convicted of felony aiding and abetting a murder, is a memoirist, a poet, a blogger, and the subject of an Emmy award-winning documentary. In the 16 years since he was convicted, he’s published seven books and is now turning his attention to the fashion industry. He’s also the co-founder of SATO Communications, a small enterprise he set up to publish his own work.
“I’m certain I have some fresh concepts that I believe would not only enlighten a conscious and progressive audience, but would inspire them,” Flowers told me. “Because if I can do it from here, they can do anything as well.”
Flowers makes no excuses for his actions as a boy, nor does he make excuses about how difficult it is to found and manage a company from his 8-feet-by-12-feet cell. But what’s remarkable about Flowers is how many different ways he’s developed to put his product—as he calls it, his “purpose,” to serve troubled youth—into the hands of his customers.
Flowers‘ story begins on December 26, 1996 when the 16-year-old was an accomplice to a robbery in Washington, D.C. during which one person was killed. Flowers told me he was found guilty for his role in the crime in May 1998, and then sentenced in July of that year. Charges against his accomplice were dismissed, according to court documents, though the co-defendant is still in prison for another murder.
After seven years in jail, Flowers launched SATO (Struggle Against the Odds) Communications, a Washington D.C.-based sole-proprietorship in the name of his mother, Darlene Flowers. His first two books, “Buried Alive” and “A Reason to Breath,” were self-published under his own imprint leaving he and his mother full rights to the royalties, which she saves for him until he is released. He now has a distribution deal with Create Space, a self-publishing company owned by Amazon, that deducts 40 percent from the list price of $10.99. His memoir, ” Making Of A Menace, Contrition Of A Man,” was published on August 12.
Miss Flowers, as he asked me to call his 57-year-old mother—who is also his accountant and financial officer—works for the Library of Congress. She arranges the editing of his books, copyrights the material, sets the price, and helps process and fulfill orders. Formerly a secretary, she jokes about her return to an administrative capacity to help her son. ‘“He’s a good boss,” she tells me. “He lets you know when he wants it, and how he wants it.”
Halim Flowers describes his typical customer as “eclectic,” and directly quotes from Steve Jobs’ playbook, saying they often don’t know what they want until you show it to them—doubly fitting for youth in search of a productive role in society. His largest order so far was for 25 books from the Free Minds Book Club, a D.C.-based workshop for incarcerated 16-year-olds and 17-year-olds who gather weekly to discuss literature.
But with 93,000 juveniles in prison in the United States, at an average cost to the taxpayer of $88,000 per year, according to a 2009 Justice Policy report, the potential customer-base for Flowers‘ books is much larger.
I first heard the name Halim Flowers from bitcoin entrepreneur Charlie Shrem, during an interview for a story about how he’s earned a living while under indictment. Earlier this year Flowers pitched a business idea in an email to Shrem, who last week pleaded guilty to operating a money transmitting business.
Flowers‘ idea, as I learned from him during our conversations, was to partner with Shrem as part of an outreach to troubled children, a partnership he hopes might allow Shrem to stay free from prison by doing community service while helping him advance his own mission. Flowers said of Shrem, “I saw in him the potential to work with me to work with the youth I want to help.” In an email last week Shrem told me, he “would love to help in-trouble teens with Halim.”
But not all Flowers‘ business aspirations are satisfied by publishing and philanthropic outreach. The now 33-year-old, who was a key subject in the Emmy-award winning ” Thug Life in D.C.”, a documentary by Mark Levin and Daphne Pinkerson about young criminals, is now co-developing a fashion line called C^3—representing Culture, Capital, and Class—intended to teach his customers about social and international affairs.
“Culture is intelligence and mannerisms,” he said. “Capital is finance and economic development, and Class is social mores and understanding different social mores from different societies, not just being parochial in our views.” His brand co-creator, also in jail, will likely be the first to be set free. Once he’s out of prison—”in society,” as Halim describes it—his partner will be responsible for setting up the logistics of the operation, which at first means selling T-shirts to retail outlets.
But if paralegal and social worker Nikki Elliott, who worked at Legal Aid for eight years, gets her way, Halim will soon be free as well to help launch the nascent fashion startup in person. Elliot told me she’s never met anyone “reaching for the stars and beyond” as much as Flowers. In our conversations, she described his entrepreneurial skills: “He’s focused. He’s determined. He’s reliable. He’s spiritual. He’s humble. He’s a go-getter. He doesn’t just sit and go with the flow. He’s always thinking of bigger and better things to do that would help him become more successful, as well as help others become more successful.”
“Focused,” though, is a relative term for a man incarcerated, and with potentially unlimited time at his disposal. Flowers also writes for Criminal U, a blog he described as trying to humanize the criminal, including this piece about the “affluenza” teen who received 10 years probation after killing four people while drunk. He’s published three books of poetry— an example of which is here—a skill he said he learned to impress a girl (the same reason pretty much every guy writes poetry). And he has a concept called A Thousand Words, in which he hopes to partner with sculptors and other visual artists to bring elements of his poetry to life in a tangible way.
When Flowers gets out, which he’s optimistic will happen, there’s no hesitation about which professional endeavor he’d like to pursue first. “Inspirational speaking, motivational speaking, that’s my dream opportunity,” he said. “And I believe that once people get an opportunity to hear me, and see me, and feel my all, they will see it’s not just a gimmick, that I’m serious about progression, and health, and wealth. My first venture would just be speaking.”
The odds are stacked against Flowers, who as a violent offender falls into a category with a 71 percent chance of being rearrested, according to a National Institute of Justice report published this June. And few can know that better than Sheila Rule, co-founder of New York City-based Think Outside the Cell, a non-profit dedicated to helping entrepreneurial inmates create their own possibilities.
Rule says that Flowers and other convicts like him who have shown a propensity for self-improvement and a natural knack for business—even if it was on the wrong side of the law—are reliant on entrepreneurs and venture capitalists on the outside to give them a chance to excel in a more traditional business environment.
“Somebody out there is going to have to not discriminate based on stereotypes, based on statistics, based on stigma,” said Rule, a former foreign correspondent for the New York Times. “They’re going to have to see his potential, his possibility, and see him as a human being, which is what he is.”
Flowers isn’t waiting for help to get started on his next projects though. He is currently crowdfunding tuition money with San Diego-based GoFundMe for a semester at Ohio University, where he has already been accepted, and in the near future he plans to translate his already-published books into both Spanish and French. Also in the works is a book in partnership with Think Outside the Cell and another self-published book titled, Be Great Wherever You Are.
“He has his CEO job waiting for him,” his mother told me at the end of our last conversation. “With his bank account.”
In March 2012, following Flowers‘ ninth post-conviction motion Judge Harold Cushenberry barred him from filing any future motions, according to D.C. Court documents. As of today, Halim’s parole date is set for May 2026, though he hasn’t given up on receiving an earlier hearing.
Those who want to write a note of support on behalf of Halim can email the U.S. Pardon attorney by clicking here.