Charles Smith grew up in a tough part of Los Angeles, and by the time he was fourteen, he was already involved in dealing marijuana for one of the city’s most prominent gangs: the Inglewood Family Gangster Bloods. To keep him from getting in deeper, when he was fifteen his mother sent him to live with his father, an Army vet, in Colorado.
But that didn’t keep him out of trouble. At the age of seventeen, Smith was arrested in Denver for possession and distribution of marijuana. A year after he was released from prison, at the age of 23, he was arrested again, this time for armed robbery. Sentenced to 64 years in prison, he was sent to Colorado State Penitentiary in 1998. Five years later, he was moved to Fremont Correctional Facility.
When he first went to prison, Smith was angry, violent, mad at the world. But then he found both God and Stephen R. Covey.
Habit 1: Be Proactive
In his 1989 bestseller, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Covey outlined the importance of adopting good habits from man’s own best instincts. His seven habits were like natural laws that guide humanity, Covey said: being proactive, thinking about the end when you start a project, finding ways to understand others before being understood yourself. By the time the author died, in 2012, this single book had sold more than 25 million copies worldwide, become the first audiobook to sell more than a million copies, and landed on the Forbes list of the top ten business-management books of all time. In 1996, Time named Covey one of the 25 most influential Americans. An entire industry grew up around his theories; Fremont was one of eleven Colorado Department of Corrections facilities to implement a program based on The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.
“That’s been a labor of love,” Smith says. “I’m able to teach these men principles and send them back to their families with a sense of hope and promise of being able to live their lives unlike they’ve lived their lives before. 7 Habits has been the perfect platform for that.”
According to Mark Fairburn, Fremont’s public-information officer, inmates across Colorado’s prison system have benefited from the 7 Habits program. “It changes the way they think,” he says. “I’ve seen these offenders go through a transformation where they’re trying to better themselves, thinking through their actions. They become more focused on what’s important — getting back to their families and not hurting the ones around them. You see a transformation in them when they go through this program.”
The program included a version of the book specifically designed to help inmates learn new behaviors so that they would not reoffend after they were released from prison. According to prison statistics, about two-thirds of convicted criminals reoffend, as Smith did. To date, 1,400 inmates have gone through the 7 Habits program at Fremont; politicians from across the country have visited the prison to see what kind of a difference it’s making.
“What we teach is unquantifiable,” Smith says. “Some of the stuff we teach, you can’t put on paper.” But Smith, who’s acquired a bachelor of arts business degree while behind bars, decided to try anyway, co-authoring a workbook called 7 Habits on the Inside: Veterans Workbook, designed to help soldiers and veterans who were in prison and suffering from PTSD.
Kat Microft, a 66-year-old Denver resident who works with veterans’ programs, got a copy of Smith’s workbook from one of his friends three years ago. After reading it, she decided to visit Smith in prison.
All of the men in Microft’s family — her father, grandfathers and great-grandfathers — were either cops or in the military. But she quickly found that she had a lot in common with Smith, too. “My whole family is law enforcement, and I had never seen the other side of it. We’ve learned a lot from each other,” she says of Smith. “He’s become one of my closest friends.”
She visits him frequently, and has also met some of his family members. His sister is a nurse in California; she works at the hospital where they took the victims of the San Bernardino shooting. “He’s an amazing kid, and he’s got an amazing family,” Microft says of Smith. “They’re just incredible people. They tried with him, but this was the only lifestyle he knew. It was quick money, and that’s what these kids know; the kids that are still doing it, that’s why. It’s easy and it’s quick, and they make a ton of money really fast.”
Microft and Smith talk about that a lot. “You don’t know better until you do better,” she observes.
Money is a problem in prison, too. Prisoners receive a sixty-cent credit every day at the commissary that they can use to buy things like new shoes, toothpaste or any required medications. But sixty cents hardly covers all their needs, and so the families of many inmates add money to their accounts. Those who don’t have access to these additional funds are preyed upon by other inmates, unable to buy their way out of trouble. They’re often beaten on a daily basis, says Smith, who notes that such brutaliity is part of prison culture.
But culture can be changed. “We wanted to find a way to help these guys,” he explains.
Habit 3: Put First Things First
Two years ago, Smith and another inmate on his cell block, Corey Woodard, started talking about creating a business that could help get money to prisoners who needed it. They decided to design a line of T-shirts that would promote safer medicinal and recreational marijuana use. Not only would the business raise money, but it would raise awareness of the more than 100,000 people incarcerated in federal prisons across the country for drug offenses — a third of whom had no prior record before they were arrested, according to the federal Bureau of Prisons.
In October 2015, Smith and Woodard founded GreenGold KushWear, settling on the name after trademark conflicts ruled out other possibilities. “It has an intrinsic and extrinsic value to it, so we call it ‘green gold,’ just like oil was called ‘black gold’ back in the day,” Smith says of marijuana.
Every new cannabis business faces unforeseen problems, but operating one from a prison creates unique hurdles.
Microft has become GreenGold’s primary liaison with the outside world, providing guidance for Smith and his team. “We are not going to do anything that’s not on the up-and-up,” she notes. But even her role has been challenging.
Colorado prisons limit inmate phone calls to twenty minutes each; once that limit is approaching, a female voice comes on and says, “You have sixty seconds remaining.” As a result, there are days when Microft and Smith spend up to eight hours speaking in twenty-minute intervals; every time the limit is reached, Smith has to hang up and call back.
And if it’s difficult communicating with Microft, it’s even tougher talking with others outside the prison. “We spent arduous hours trying to find a producer for the T-shirts,” Smith recalls. “We knew we were on a bootstrap budget. We knew we had to pull our funds together to figure this out. We were so desperate.”
But then he learned that another inmate at Fremont owned a T-shirt printing business. George Munson had started Wrapped With Envy in downtown Denver in 1998; while he’s in prison, his daughter is managing the shop.
Only ten inmates at Fremont have what’s known in the Colorado Department of Corrections as a pink pass; it allows inmates to move freely between units of a facility to do mentoring or run programs. Smith was one of the rare inmates with a pass; using it, he was able to find Munson at Fremont.
Munson was so excited about Smith’s business plan that he made an offer: If GreenGold paid for the unadorned shirts, Munson would float the printing costs and join Smith and Woodard as part of the team. “Once I saw the artwork, I wanted to get involved,” Munson says.
Habit 4: Think Win-Win
The T-shirt art all comes from Fremont inmates. “I’ve seen some of the most phenomenal artists in here,” Smith says. In fact, he uses some of their work to decorate his cell.
“We want to shine a light on the artists,” Smith continues. “It’s about the artists who represent GreenGold, because some of the art they do is just priceless.” So far, GreenGold shirts have featured work by close to a dozen Fremont inmates. All are paid for their designs.
“There are artists who come in and just need a little money, so they’ll come in and make a few designs for us, but we’ve got about four core artists who are super,” Smith says. “Our number-one artist is John P. Sherman, and this man is so phenomenal.”
The images range from a dragon holding a bong while sitting on a treasure of gold coins, paper money and marijuana leaves to Donald Trump blowing out a puff of smoke with the words “Weed Gone Crazy.” The most recent GreenGold design is a gorilla carrying a Colorado flag. The gorilla has a joint between his fingers; a dollar bill with the words “Amendment 64” on it is shown behind him. Smith explains that he sees the early cannabis industry like guerrilla warfare, and the early supporters of Amendment 64 are akin to guerrilla fighters. “What happened in Colorado changed the world forever,” he says. “The people who got involved in the beginning took such a big risk — they still take big risks. They could be shut down at any moment, but they’re helping change the way the world sees this.”
There are currently seventeen shirt designs available and eighteen more in the works; they sell for $25 each at greengoldkushwear.com. “Initially we only wanted to create a business that would financially sustain us and our families throughout the duration of our sentences,” the founders say in a message on that website, “until we realized there was a higher calling that needed to be answered. Why not assist the up-and-coming artists to discover their voices amid the ambient noise of despair and despondency? To do this, GGKW has set up a payment plan that would make direct deposits to inmate accounting via jpay.com.”
To find out which images might attract buyers, GreenGold came up with an unusual market-research tactic.
Taylor Ducet, a 23-year-old inmate at Fremont, is one of the prisoners who receives little financial help from his family; he exemplifies the type of person Smith wants to help. “These guys, these kids, they get beat up every day,” Smith says. “We’re in a war zone.”
“That was one thing we really hashed out at the beginning,” Woodard adds. “We just want to help out guys in here because we want to help out our community.”
“Right off the bat, we clicked,” Ducet says of his relationship with Smith.
While Ducet didn’t have money, he did have something of value to the company: a brother attending college. Ducet asked him to wear the GreenGold shirts around campus to gauge people’s reactions to them, and he became a walking ad for the team’s products.
Ducet says he’d planned to go to college himself and pursue a business degree, so he’s happy to apply what business knowledge he has to the project. “I negotiated my way in for a stake in the company,” he says. “I felt like I was on Shark Tank.”
Before he landed in Fremont, Ducet says, he was on the verge of joining the 211 crew, a notorious white-supremacist gang. But now he’s part of another team entirely. “If you know prison, it’s very segregated,” he says. “It’s so separated, and the four of us are so different. We all come from different backgrounds, and we all come from different times of life...but we all are so close, and what we put first is our relationships with each other.”
“For him to be a part of this, me black and him white, it really means something,” Smith says of Ducet. “It means something to me, and it means something to the other guys in here.”
The partners worked hard to overcome any stereotypical thinking, Woodard says. “It’s not about who we are; it’s what we’re trying to bring — it’s this positivity. We’ve come a long way,” he explains. “I love these guys. This team we got here, people see us around and wouldn’t even think we came together — the race barriers, the different cultural backgrounds — especially in a place known for segregation and division. To have four unlikely guys come together and build something, it’s amazing.”
“Every day we have to be on our toes, and to be able to put together something like we did in the midst of the evil and the seriousness and all that, it’s remarkable,” says Smith.
For a while, all four partners lived in the same pod at Fremont, and they’d get together for business meetings every Thursday to strategize methods for growing the business. But they put their friendship before any company concerns. “We have that loyalty first and foremost,” says Ducet. “We’re family, and we put that before the business.”
Not only has creating the business changed their lives, but Munson says he’s seen it change the atmosphere at Fremont.
Other inmates have rallied around the company. “This whole facility walks around and they’re all GreenGold diggers,” says Woodard. “You see some of the toughest guys with tattoos all on their face and they’re screaming ‘GreenGold!’ across the prison yard.”
“It gives everybody an escape from the reality of prison and a purpose for being in here,” Munson adds. “They’re learning how to run a business, and it gives them something to look forward to when everybody gets released — not just coming out into society as felons, but they’re going to be business owners. It gives them a brighter future. People in here are searching for a purpose, and that’s what GreenGold gives them.”
Microft attributes all of that to Smith. “The other guys look up to him,” she says. “He has earned the respect of every other guy in there.”
But Smith himself is no longer at Fremont. Earlier this month, he was moved to Crowley County Correctional Facility. The DOC decided to dedicate the unit he was in to sex offenders, and so the entire team — a Fremont success story — was broken up. The other three partners were moved elsewhere at Fremont.
Smith is starting a 7 Habits program at his new prison, and he continues to push GreenGold KushWear, even if he sometimes has to talk with his partners via phone calls with Microft, since inmates can’t communicate prison to prison. The purpose remains the same: to show people on the outside that there’s more to people on the inside than where they live or what they’ve done in the past.
“I wanted to give these gentlemen something that they can hold on to, because there are a lot of hopeless people in here,” Smith says. “We’re trying to set the stage to give back to the survivors, because we’re a lost culture. We’re the forgotten.... That’s what this company is about: giving hope back to the hopeless.”