In January 20, 1997 Halim Flowers was convicted of a felony as a 16-year-old. Though his age merited treatment as a juvenile, the federal court in Washington, D.C. chose to treat him as an adult, sentencing him to life in prison for a crime he maintains he did not commit.
According to Flowers, he encountered three men when he went to rob a drug house. When he ran away, he told his friend what had happened.
“After I left the apartment, I went around the corner and told my friend what had occurred during the robbery. He got the gun from me and went around the corner and killed one of the three men.”
Flowers was sentenced to 30 years to life in prison. Now age 35, he hopes to leave prison one day as Congress and the Senate may give the final pass to laws that will change the prison system, particularly the juvenile prison system and treatment of children.
Lucius Couloute is a doctoral candidate at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, where he studies mass incarceration and the prison system in the U.S. Said Couloute, “The 80s and 90s ushered in more punitive criminal justice policies and facilitated an increased number of children being tried as adults.”
“I think that as communities, especially poor communities of color, experienced the negative impact of mass incarceration, the treatment of younger citizens began raising red flags. As such, many have called for the destruction of the school-to-prison pipeline, which funnels students out of institutions of learning and into institutions of punishment.”
Said Flowers, “If the general public was aware that the United States is the only developed nation in the world that gives children life sentences, I think that their thoughts about juvenile crime would be more progressive towards this issue”
Just last month, in the case “Montgomery v. Louisiana”, the Supreme Court made further headway in prison reform by applying the conclusion of a past case retroactively; that was the case of Miller v. Alabama, which held that mandatory sentences of life without parole violate the Constitution’s 8th Amendment barring “Cruel and Unusual Punishment.” The outcome caused Congress to introduce a new bill, “The Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2015,” which would give judges discretion to reduce juvenile life without parole sentences after 20 years.
“The bill has already passed with the Judiciary Committees of the House and Senate, and it is pending a full vote this year,” said Flowers.
Flowers believes that a culture valuing materialism and celebrity over spirituality and happiness, a culture he felt immersed in as a youth, is connected with the history of drug abuse and gang violence in Washington, D.C. and a culture of medicated treatment among the wealthier upper classes. These pitfalls, Flowers believes, have been the context that has led to the gentrification now plaguing the Capitol, as well as other cities across the U.S.
“It takes a village to raise a child. And, our village ‘could’ have been better considering that we were literally blocks away from the White House and Capitol. However, the ‘Crack Era’ of the 80s and 90s was the necessary storm to precipitate the current rainbow of gentrification that is now displacing poor citizens of the District of Columbia.”
“Our village, no matter how close in proximity it was to the Executive Mansion and Nancy Reagan and Barbara Bush, was a poor black community infested with drugs and guns. And, the only remedy for our situation was mass incarceration at that time. Even the Congressional Black Caucus supported the infamous ‘Crack Laws’ of the 80s that have displaced generations in the prison system.”
The Sentencing Project, an organization engaged in research on the criminal justice system, publishes a Relative Rate Index (RRI), showing the relative disparity between whites and minorities imprisoned. Between 1990 and 2010, the RRI has shown that black juveniles are twice as likely to be incarcerated as white juveniles, a rate that has persisted despite a decrease in juvenile arrest rates. However, in 2011 black youth were 269% more likely to be arrested for violating curfew laws,” (a percentage that may be due to repeated arrests).
In total, 2,283 inmates under the age of 18 were recorded by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, published in 2009. The highest proportion of these were in the South, 836, followed by the Northeast, 748, then the Midwest, 422 and West region, 237. The state with the highest number was Connecticut, with 444 inmates under the age of 18 in the state, comparable to the Midwest region.
For the 39 states experiencing a decline in incarceration trends overall since reaching peak prison populations in the past 15 years, the decline is reported to be modest by the Sentencing Project, with 11 states also having risen in prison population.
“These developments suggest that, while the recent national decline in the prison population is encouraging, any significant decarceration will require more sustained attention,” states the Sentencing Project website.
“There are still over 2 million people residing in prisons and jails across the country, even more trying to navigate life after being formally criminalized,” said Couloute.
“Additionally, it’s time we take a deeper look at violent offenders too. If we somehow released all of the incarcerated non-violent offenders, we would still have about half of our current prisoners to contend with. There are probably ways to better decrease crime without imprisoning millions of people. Part of the answer lies in making structural changes that decrease economic and social inequalities, the other important part is fostering a cultural shift that eliminates our current preoccupation with constructing an ‘us’ versus ‘them’ society.”
Along with D.C. 16 states have also changed laws regarding juveniles sentenced to life and eligibility for parole. Flowers hopes that with a greater change in attitude regarding the treatment of children fallen into the prison system, society will increasingly direct its attention towards the transition of juveniles back into society.
As a writer and activist, Flowers works with two nonprofits well known for their work in advancing the rights of juveniles. The Free Minds Book Club & Writing Workshop in D.C. and Children of Promise in New York City contribute to discourse on prison system reform. Most importantly, a ban on solitary confinement for juveniles was enacted, and Free Minds members are also dedicated to reforming laws that do not allow court justices to reconsider whether a minor should be treated as an adult, as well as reforming other practices regarding the prison system.
“We would like to see reform to Title 16 to add a reverse transfer option,” said Tara Libert, co-founder and Executive Director of the Free Minds Book Club & Writing Workshop. “Title 16 is the part of the DC Code that allows the US Attorney’s Office to charge juveniles aged 16 and 17 as adults for certain offenses.”
“At present,” explained Libert, “the decision to charge juveniles as adults rests solely with the prosecutors [the US Attorney’s Office]. There is no opportunity for a ‘reverse waiver’, where a judge would review the appropriateness of a youth being prosecuted in the adult system and possibly send that youth’s case back to the juvenile system. Reverse transfer provisions are common in other states.”
The Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention in 2008 offered clarification on the difference between current law in most states and the ‘reverse transfer provisions’ and versus a preferred ‘reverse waiver designation.’
“The reverse waiver designation applies to provisions that authorize the criminal court to transfer a case for disposition to the juvenile court, but does not apply to ‘blended sentencing’ provisions under which the criminal court retains the case while imposing a combination of dispositions, some of which are ordinarily available only to juvenile courts.”
At least in 23 states, there are laws providing a mechanism for juveniles to petition to have their case transferred to a court for minors.
In terms of correctional reform in D.C., Libert feels strongly that changes need to be made, especially those impacting the time and ability of family and community members to maintain ties while a juvenile is incarcerated.
“Because DC does not have its own prison, juveniles sentenced as adults out of DC Superior Court get sent to the Federal Bureau of Prisons, and are often thousands of miles from home and from families who do not have the means to travel long distances to visit them,” said Libert.
“While this issue is not specific to juveniles, loss of family and community ties may have a greater effect on the mental health of young inmates to help DC’s juveniles charged and incarcerated as adults to maintain family and community ties while incarcerated.”
There is also the issue of a point system implemented by the Bureau of Prisons in which an inmate is designated by the Federal Correctional Institution (FCI Low or Medium) or to the U.S. Penitentiary (USP High) facilities. Based on the number of points received, an inmate’s placement is determined; the higher the points, the higher security facility they are designated to.
“An inmate automatically receives points for being under 25 years of age, and receives points for not having a high school diploma or GED. What this means for youths charged as adults is that they already have a few strikes against them, as they’re under 25 and most have not yet completed high school or a GED. Therefore, they have higher points, are more likely to go to higher security facilities with fewer programming options, and receive placements further from home,” said Libert.
In D.C., the two closest facilities to are Petersburg and Cumberland and are FCI’s, and therefore anyone with a high designation would be ineligible for placement at those facilities.
“Those are the only two facilities less than a 3-hour drive from D.C. To place these young inmates in facilities further from home with fewer programming options runs counter to all research about what will actually help them successfully re-enter society, so the BOP’s classification system should be examined and changes should be made that keep young offenders closer to home and provide them with more programming.”
Other reforms that have come about under the Obama Administration, including the decision to release nonviolent offenders and reforms affecting juveniles currently in the prison system; these include an end to restrictive housing, “diverting inmates with serious mental illness to alternative forms of housing,” limiting the use of punitive segregation, directing wardens to increase time spent out-of-cell, limiting releases directly to the community, and increasing transparency by publishing data on restrictive housing and other statistics on a public website.
“While President Obama’s Executive Order banning the use of solitary confinement for juveniles was a positive step, there are very few people under the age of 18 in federal correctional custody,” maintained Libert.
“Many scientists studying cognitive development suggest that the brain does not fully develop until people are into their mid-twenties. Therefore, the use of solitary confinement should be restricted or banned for young inmates more generally, perhaps up to age 25 because of the serious mental health consequences that they experience as a result of placements in solitary confinement,” said Libert of the Free Minds Book Club & Writing Workshop in Washington, D.C.
“Additionally, Free Minds has had members released directly from solitary confinement in the Bureau of Prisons, and has observed the difficulties these young men experience with reentry as a result. No inmates, and specifically no young inmates, should be released directly from solitary confinement.”
Couloute believes the changes made under the Obama Administration are good but long overdue, and Flowers is anxious for policies to be enacted that would support children before they become targets for arrest and face a life sentence in prison.
“There also appears to be fewer examples of prosecutors pushing for life without parole sentences for juveniles, although it is yet to be seen how we will address those already serving extremely long sentences,” said Couloute.
In this system, children are deprived of their parents, and juveniles need greater support systems.
“There are 105,000 people in New York State that have an imprisoned parent,” and there are no supports responsible for these children, stated Director and Founder of the nonprofit Children of Promise in New York City Sharon Content in a video posted in 2013.
The organization reports that without help, children of incarcerated parents have a 75% chance of repeating the prison cycle. “Once an adult is incarcerated there’s no agency that’s responsible for these young people,” said Content.
In the short video, the nonprofit’s Director of Mental Health Anna Morgan-Mullane said that much time passes before many children of incarcerated parents are able to visit a parent in prison. Sometimes they are unable to respond back in writing when parents write letters. Going around a table, children shared the prison sentence for their parents; one child said his father would be in prison for 27 years. Another saw at the age of five his father, as well as his grandfather imprisoned and only recently released.
Content showed a poem posted by one of the children in the halls. “To Daddy,” he said,
“I saw a man
walking down the street.
He looked familiar.
I was not sure who he was
but then I remembered
what was but is now not
He was my father
I walked up to him and say Hello Lamar
How is your perfect life?
He replies who are you?
I say you really don’t remember me?
your own flesh and blood?
you helped create me and you forget me
He replies Hello Turaya
Hi I reply and walk away
He stops me and he says
Where are you going
Sorry I don’t
Know you Anymore!
“That’s why Children of Promise exists. So that Turaya could write something like this and feel very comfortable in expressing, ‘You know what? My dad’s served a number of years, and he came home, and he doesn’t know me.”
Children of Promise offers therapeutic and mental health services for children of imprisoned parents. Flowers worries that without more support systems like these, young people will indeed experience emotional and mental health problem and are more likely to fall into by the criminal system.
One of the older program participants said, “Children of Promise is a somewhat savior because the people here are actually directly affected by incarceration which then leads them to have a greatest probability of going to jail. We can’t even begin to fathom what kind of life we would have without a place like this.”
“There’s a population that is underserved and so at risk”said the interviewer of Children of Promise, “and there’s finally an organization addressing it and helping them break the cycle.”
Without more organizations dedicated to young people, Flowers believes teens and children will face pressures they are not equipped to handle in an unjust world.
The Free Minds Book Club & Writing Workshop, which Libert co-founded and directs, is a support system that Flowers also learned of in prison, and continues to be an active part of. The group is a support for DC youth incarcerated as adults to engage in creative expression, job readiness training, and violence prevention outreach. Through this community and weekly book club, a peer support system exists to awaken youth to their potential to achieve education and career goals, and become powerful voices for change in their community.
“Free Minds serves its members from the time of their incarceration at the DC Jail, throughout their incarceration and reentry,” said Libert.
“After they turn 18 and are sent to federal prisons across the country, we engage them in a correspondence-based long-distance book club. We mail books, letters, and a newsletter, to encourage them to pursue education and prepare for reentry. When they come home, we offer comprehensive, wraparound support, including a month-long Job Readiness and Personal Skill Building Apprenticeship, and connections to jobs and educational opportunities. We also hold poetry readings and community dialogues to raise awareness about the root causes of youth incarceration and to unite the community in creating solutions. Our goal is to give our members the tools and training to tell their own stories and become their own advocates.”
Free Minds members home in the community serve as Poet Ambassadors, speaking to diverse audiences throughout the DC area to raise awareness about the causes and consequences of youth incarceration. Free Minds Poet Ambassadors have testified before DC City Council hearings and participated in a successful campaign to bring the DC Public Libraries to the DC Jail.
“Previously, the jail had a law library but no reading library; Free Minds members spoke to DC City Councilmembers about the positive impact of literature on mental wellness and education for incarcerated individuals.”
Poet Ambassadors also testified at hearings on the collateral consequences of incarceration, and the value of legislation to “Ban the Box” (referring to a box on job applications asking applicants if they have a criminal record).
“Young people naturally are immature and more susceptible to be influenced by negative peer pressure than adults,” said Flowers. “Children are inclined to reckless behavior due to their inexperience and lack of ability to foresee the full ripple effect of their decisions. This is why children cannot vote, drink alcohol, smoke, serve on a jury or in the military, nor enter into a contract without a legal guardian.”
Though minors can be held liable for negligence, Flowers believes that it simply is not correct to treat juveniles as adults.
“It is just easier for a child to follow the herd off of a cliff into the prison industrial complex because they do not fully comprehend the sanctity and beauty of life.”
In Flowers’ opinion, the correct approach is to apply a punishment to the crime that is enough to deter an individual from committing that crime again. Couloute urged caution with this belief and stressed that it be developmental and socioeconomic circumstances of a child or teen that be taken into account.
“The idea that stricter criminal justice policies will result in decreased criminal behavior has actually played a significant role in the federal government and states implementing harsher sentencing guidelines, resulting in specific practices such as juveniles being tried as adults,” said Couloute, warning that, “While there does appear to be some empirical support for deterrence, these policies tend to neglect the causes of crime, which we know have roots in poverty, educational inequality, mental health and other issues such as limited community resources.”
“Part of the issue now has become whether states will adopt better policies for handling children who come into contact with the criminal justice system. Some do appear to be moving in the right direction and in Connecticut, for example, policymakers are discussing a law that would raise the age of juvenile offenders from 18 to 20,” said Couloute.
“What we do know is that the majority of incarcerated juveniles are actually nonviolent. Many are charged with drug crimes or violating a condition of supervision. So instead of locking them up and formally criminalizing kids, we’ve got to think about how to engage them as valuable young citizens with the potential to substantially contribute to society. I think that offending children need support rather than exclusion, implementing transparent and assistive rather than punitive programs can help to facilitate their growth.”
“Even for those violent juvenile offenders, we first need to better understand why someone has committed a crime, and then figure out ways to assist them in leading non-violent futures. This might entail stronger economic and social supports, it might also mean incorporating therapeutic programs that help kids deal with the social circumstances they face,” said Couloute. “Furthermore, I think that we need to take a serious look at how and why we prosecute kids; are we looking at young offenders simply as criminals, or are we taking into account the context in which their criminal behavior occurs? There isn’t any one criminal justice program or reform that will magically fix the system, but taking a more humane and contextualized approach is generally the way to go.”
Libert believes education and vocational training to incarcerated individuals with the highest risks of returning to a previous pattern of behavior, recidivism, should be prioritized by the budget through education and vocational programs.
“There is a greater need for educational and vocational programming among this population, and from a budget and recidivism reduction standpoint, it is where correctional systems get the best bang for their buck,” said Libert.
Couloute feels eliminating the prison pipeline in and of itself should be the goal. Improving schools, raising the minimum wage, and developing organizational supports for children, and preventing abuse within the prison system are all measures that need more attention.
“Imagine growing up in a family struggling to pay rent and put food on the table because of an unstable labor market and a lack of social supports. Then compound that experience with highly disadvantaged schools, a constant cycling of adults in and out of prison, and antagonistic relationships with criminal justice authorities. It becomes almost impossible to grow and develop in the same way that middle class children do.”
Continued Couloute, “If you have a city or state where politicians run on the idea that they will be tough on crime, you’re likely to find more severe criminal justice policies. This can result in stop and frisk or other ‘broken windows’ policies whereby communities become over-policed because of some belief that if you punish the small offenses strictly, it prevents larger offenses from occurring. It should be noted, however, that these practices don’t appear to be very helpful to communities and frequently result in distrust of the police and the over-criminalization of disadvantaged populations.”
Outreach is something that the Free Mind Book Club also engages in, an effort to change the ‘us’ vs. ‘them’ mentality. Poet Ambassadors are often asked to speak at events in the DC community and in other cities and towns.
Recently, a Free Minds Poet Ambassador was invited to speak on a panel at the White House about arts and reentry. Poet Ambassadors also regularly facilitate community outreach events at local schools and community spaces to raise awareness about the causes and consequences of youth incarceration, and to promote community-building through the literary arts.
The Free Minds Book Club & Writing Workshop was introduced to Flowers while he was writing in prison, and then began writing for their bimonthly newsletter Free Minds Connect, which is distributed to over 150 young men in more than 37 prisons across the country.
“One of our contacts at the Corrections Information Council told us about him and his books,” said Libert.
“Halim now writes a regular advice column in the newsletter called ‘Ask HF,’ in which our members write in with questions such as how to stay focused on their goals while in prison, or how to keep in touch with friends and family on the outside. Halim also reviews books that we send to our Free Minds members in federal prison as part of our “Books Across the Miles” long-distance book club. He also participates in a non-accredited course on African American literature that we offer, and he is so enthusiastic about the project that he shares the readings with other inmates when he’s done.”
Some noteworthy books of his include A Reason to Breathe and Buried Alive, and Free Minds is currently reviewing a new book, Time: How to Do It and Not Let It Do You.
Flowers is anxious about the change that can be affected among youth and the communities they live in. He worries that youth and the general public are limited by a culture of consumerism and superficial goals that hamper their capacity to achieve greatness and to recognize happiness.
“People imprison their unique greatness as individuals because their parents and peers do not encourage them to be great. Parents do not nurture the individual talents of their children. Rather, they force them to “conform” to stale traditions of the past and their own expectations that they had for themselves that they never reached personally before they conceived their children,” said Flowers.
He continued, “Most people don’t care about reaching and exceeding their potential in life. They only want to make money so that they can buy things in order to ‘appear’ to be better than everyone else that cannot afford them. I don’t think people are even concerned about being happy anymore. The end game today is to be rich and famous, even at the cost of being poor in health and spirit.”
“The purpose in life is to worship and serve The Creator of all life. We do this by appreciating and improving our own life and the life of all creation. Its just that simple.”