21-year-old Duane Jackson from east London arrived at Atlanta airport in 1999. Head down, he collected his suitcase from the conveyor belt and darted straight towards the “Nothing to Declare” lane.
‘Step this way please,” a member of airport security interrupted, before Jackson had reached the anonymity of the arrival lounge.
After a close but inconsequential inspection of his suitcase, Jackson nervously nudged his shoulder bag behind him, hoping it would be ignored.
“And that one,” the officer snapped.
Jackson’s suitcase was clean, but inside his shoulder bag was 6,500 ecstasy pills, hidden in a big bottle of talcum powder and a pair of gutted Walkman speakers.
As the airport security officer ripped open the talcum powder bottle, hundreds of ecstacy pills wrapped in clingfilm dropped out. The eruption of powder hid nothing: Jackson’s guilt was obvious.
“There was no cleverness to it at all,” Jackson told Business Insider, in the lounge of the Hilton Hotel near London Bridge, 17 years later.
In the years since he got arrested at Atlanta airport, Jackson has spent time locked up on both sides of the Atlantic as a convicted drug smuggler. On release, he built KashFlow, a business The Guardian reported was sold in 2013 for around £20 million ($30 million.)
Now he is campaigning for prisoners to be encouraged to make use of their mis-used entrepreneurial urges on release. According to a new report from the Centre for Entrepreneurs, this could save the UK tax payer £1.4 billion (about $2 billion) per year, through dramatically lowering re-offending rates.
We sat down with Jackson to ask more about his own incredible journey from convict with no qualifications to multi-millionaire tech entrepreneur.
Jackson grew up in Newham, in the east end of London.
From early on, family life was difficult.
Aged 11, he was separated from his mum and sent to a children’s home.
“It certainly wasn’t a loving environment, but nor was it an abusive environment. It was a safe environment I guess,” Jackson said, describing the home.
Jackson, who comes across calm and confident during the interview, admits that his time at children’s homes made him “emotionally detached.”
However, he thinks this may have helped him in the business world, comparing his own coolness to that of Bill Gates and British entrepreneur Sir Alan Sugar.
Jackson said his time at the home was “neutral.”
However, this description clearly hides real difficulties. He explained that he was kicked out of various schools, before being left to spend his whole day with social workers at the children’s home.
This was a problem for the staff at the home, as for children between three and nine-years-old they were legally obliged to make sure that Jackson was “doing something classed as education.”
One day, aged 14, Jackson spotted an unopened ZX Spectrum computer lying in the corner.
Timidly, he asked if he could use it.
Staff at the home were pleased to let him do so: They were glad he was doing anything other than watching TV.
The teenager quickly became obsessed with the Spectrum, spending hours each day trawling through the manual that came with the computer, learning to code.
“The thing I loved about it was if the computer does something wrong, or not what you were expecting, there’s a very simple reason for it: You programmed it wrong. It was your fault,” Jackson explained.
“Whereas normally in my life, if someone had done something wrong or not what I expected, it could have been because they didn’t get laid last night, it could have been because they shouldn’t have been a social worker in the first place, it could have been because they think you’re an arrogant little s–t that they don’t like. It could be for a million different reasons that I couldn’t decipher,” he said.