When does Hill Harper ever rest? Earlier this year, the CSI star left the beloved TV show to join USA spy thriller Covert Affairs and hosted his annual empowerment academies for youth through his Manifest Your Destiny foundation. All while writing a book on incarceration in America.
In Letters to an Incarcerated Brother, Harper addresses what he calls “the cancer of in our community” through letters to imprisoned men and women he has befriended over the years. Though the title may lead one to believe he’s only talking to people behind bars, Harper says he hopes the book stretches beyond the physical prison cell, to the “mental prisons” we find ourselves in through debt, depression or even bad relationships.
He spoke with ESSENCE.com about his new book, what mothers can do to avoid the cradle-to-prison pipeline and how he finds the time to do it all.
ESSENCE.com: You’ve written the book especially for incarcerated men. Why?
Hill Harper: I want to be clear: the book is for incarcerated men as well as women, and their families. I started getting letters from a number of incarcerated young people as well as adults and the correspondence really touched my heart. A number of the letters are in my book. There’s one in there from a young man named Brian that made me ask the question Did Brian fail society or did society fail Brian? That’s what started me down the road, researching and exploring this idea. Just like any of my books, I’m not the expert. I’m just like the reader; attempting to figure it out. The impetus of this book is wanting to fill a void. Incarceration is like a cancer in our community. We are 13 percent of the U.S. population, but we’re 60 percent of inmates.
ESSENCE.com: Do you think we talk enough about incarceration in our communities?
Harper: We don’t. A lot of us don’t know what to do because it’s such a multipronged problem. So, we do what most people do in the face of a problem, which is bury our heads in the sand and hope the problem solves itself. And it’s not. Part of the reason I wanted to write this book is to shed light and get a discussion going about solutions to some of these issues. All the while we’re losing a generation of individuals. Whether you want to talk about it as the new Jim Crow as Michelle Alexander calls it so accurately in her book, or some type of modern-day slavery, the point is our system of incarceration is broken. We can talk about changing policy, but that doesn’t help the person getting out next month, next year or the next three years. That’s why my book is bottom-up approach as opposed to a top-down approach.
ESSENCE.com: The Sentencing Project recently came out with figures showing that one in every three Black males today can expect to go to prison at some point in their lives.
Harper: It’s an issue we need to talk about. Beyond that, I believe many of us are in prisons not made of iron bars that I hope this book will help set free. Whether it’s a situation where you’ve gotten yourself in a debt-trap or one where the types of relationships you’re in have gotten you caught. Or you’re in the midst of depression I hope a lot of the prescriptive elements that we talk about in the book will be helpful to everyone who reads it. And I hope that they story that develops between me and Brian will be inspirational.
ESSENCE.com: What’s your advice to a mother who may be raising a Brian?
Hill Harper: You have to start early to recognize that the young man as well as young women are going to be looking for certain types of role models that are the most influential to them. The question then becomes: what are you putting in front of your children to influence them? Are you giving them books like this one or is the television and music raising your child? Are the other young men and women around them doing it? I champion the idea of being more conscious. I call it being an active architect of your own life. Building your life like an architect builds a structure.
ESSENCE.com: You’re also currently starring in USA’s Covert Affairs. When does writing an almost 400-page book happen Hill?
Harper: Here’s the deal: I believe—and I attempt to live my life this way—we all have more time than we think we do. We all waste so much time. What I talk about in my book is the idea of really breaking out your days and doing things one at a time. When I’m acting, that’s all I’m doing. When I’m not acting, I’m not thinking about acting. If I’m writing, I’m just writing. Even if you have an office job, ask yourself: how much of that time are you really spending doing real work? I believe that most of us can be much more productive that we are.
Hill Harper’s Letters to an Incarcerated Brother: Encouragement, Hope, and Healing for Inmates and Their Loved Ones is out now.