Actor Hill Harper On His Life-Changing 'Letters' From An Inmate
He's best known for starring in hit TV shows like CSI: NY and Covert Affairs, but actor Hill Harper's most significant role may be off the screen.
After writing several advice books, including the best-seller Letters to a Young Brother, Harper began receiving letters from young men in prison. He documents his relationship with one of them in his new book, Letters to an Incarcerated Brother.
He spoke with Tell Me More host Michel Martin about the prison system and how this friendship changed his life.
On the first letter he received from the young inmate
[It] stole my heart, for one reason — the vulnerability in it. Because you have to understand, a lot of these young men in prison, they've put up so many walls of defense that his ability to be vulnerable in the letter broke my heart.
That's No. 1. No. 2, the way it was written. It was written — he was 16 years old, as he says in the letter, but it was written at about a fourth-grade level. And it made me think, "Did society fail this young man? Or did he fail us?"
On the advice he gives
I talk about this idea of being an active architect of our own life — this idea that you can build a life like an architect builds a structure. But you have to approach it with the same level of specificity. So many of us would ask for more specificity from an architect building our house than we ask of ourselves in building our lives.
On why he cares
My grandfather had a farm in Iowa, and it was in Fort Madison. There was a prison. I'd go down to eat, and sometimes there would be a strange man at the breakfast table. I'd say, "Who is this?" And my grandfather would say, "Oh, he just got out of prison. He needed help getting back on his feet, so we'll give him a job on the farm and he's gonna stay here for a while."
I was in Iowa recently, campaigning for the president. And a man came up to me and said, "Remember me?" He shook my hand; he was almost 85 years old. "Your grandfather took me in. We used to have breakfast together. I just want to come and say hello." And that brought me to tears.
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Now we turn to a story that sounds like it would make a Hollywood script. You might know the actor Hill Harper from his roles on television and the movies. He's earned millions of fans from his years playing Dr. Sheldon Hawkes on "CSI: NY." He currently stars as Calder Michaels as the ambitious CIA station chief in the new season of "Covert Affairs."
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "COVERT AFFAIRS")
HILL HARPER: (As Calder Michaels) You need to leave town today.
PIPER PERABO: (As Jessica Matthews) I know what I'm doing.
HARPER: (As Calder Michaels) So you changed your hair. You changed your modus operandi, OK. But if Henry Wilcox puts together that Jessica Matthews is really Annie Walker, he's going to know that I lied to him about killing you, and try to put a bullet in both of our heads.
MARTIN: But what you might not know is that Hill Harper is a man of many interests. In addition to his acting work, he's also penned some best-selling motivational and advice books for youth and adults, including the bestseller "Letters to a Young Brother." Now he has a new book. It's called "Letters to an Incarcerated Brother: Encouragement, Hope, and Healing for Inmates and Their Loved Ones." And it describes his advice to an incarcerated young man with whom he developed an unlikely friendship. And Hill Harper's with us now to tell us more about. Welcome. Welcome back, I should say.
HARPER: Thank you.
MARTIN: Thanks so much for joining us once again.
HARPER: Thanks, great to be here. Thank you.
MARTIN: You know, I used the word unlikely friendship. I'm not sure why I said that because is it really that unlikely given that, you know, they're - what is it the U.S. - you say in the book that the U.S. has what, a quarter of the incarcerated population...
HARPER: Of the word.
MARTIN: ...Of the world.
MARTIN: Of the world.
HARPER: We're 5 percent of the world's population, but we have a quarter of the world's population. We lock up six to 10 more people in this country than any other industrialized nation. China has four times more people than we do, but we lock up more people than they do. So we have an incarcerate - you know, people call it a mass incarceration crisis. I call it a hyper-incarceration crisis.
MARTIN: How did this friendship start? And you actually published...
MARTIN: ...Or show in the book, the beginning of the book, some of the letters.
HARPER: The first letter...
HARPER: ...That I ever got from him...
HARPER: ...Is the first letter.
MARTIN: How did he find you? How did that happen?
HARPER: At some point, the book won the best book for young adults by the American Library Association - my first book. And I guess some judges started assigning it.
MARTIN: "Letters to a Young Brother."
HARPER: "Letters to a Young Brother," my very first book in 2006. Some judges started assigning it for young men that they were incarcerating to write book reports. One day in the mail in my office, I got a stack of book reports. And I'm like, why are book reports coming from a prison? And I - you know, obviously, it became very clear to me what was going on. And then letters started showing up through my publishing company because they started writing letters, just the address that was on the book. And one letter in particular stole my heart. For one reason, the vulnerability in it because you have to understand, a lot of these young men in prison, they've put up so many walls of defense that his ability to be vulnerable in a letter broke my heart. That's number one.
Number two, the way it was written. It was written - he was 16 years old as he says in the letter, but it was written at about a fourth-grade level. And it made me think, did society fail this young man or did he fail us? Who - our education system without question failed him. All of these things were swirling around my head and saying, I want to - I want an intervention with him. And he and I developed a relationship. We still talk a great deal to this day. He helped me a great deal with the book, and that's one thing that I hope people - because, obviously, the book's not just written for individuals that are incarcerated. I'm, you know, hoping folks that aren't incarcerated will read the book and enjoy it and also understand and develop some empathy for people who are incarcerated.
MARTIN: One of the things that I think people will find interesting about it is that you are very honest about your hesitation in some ways to reach out.
MARTIN: And he's very honest about, while he desires your friendship, how he's not always very interested in what you have to say because he really doesn't understand what is it you could possibly be telling him. In fact, at one point he says, look, I just don't think you get it. I mean, how could you? It's so easy for you to tell me to focus and stay positive, to free my mind when you out there driving your Bentley to "CSI" and checking time on your Rolex, but that - and uses a word I don't say - don't matter where I am. Does writing me make you feel less guilty? So what's the answer?
HARPER: Yes and no. In one way, this dialogue helped me learn and grow. He was teaching me things, and that's the unlikely thing. It's like, you think that you're mentoring somebody, but they're really mentoring you. And at the same time, hopefully, I'm passing on something. Part of a lot...
MARTIN: Well, tell me about that for a minute.
MARTIN: What did he teach you?
HARPER: He taught me, when you're doing time, all you have is time and it starts to eat away at you. And it starts to eat and eat, and each day becomes the same. And you don't know what day is what day. You know, people always think about what prison is. What prison really is - it's not a physical challenge, it's mental. And what came very clear is he was saying to me the best way you can help me is a way to help me figure out how to use my time. And what's amazing is what I realized in that is how much time I waste even though I'm so-called, quote-unquote, free because many of us are in prisons that aren't made of iron bars. A lot of the stuff that came out about getting unstuck of your mental prison came from him.
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, I'm speaking with Hill Harper. You know him from his acting work, but he's also a best-selling author. And his latest is "Letters to an Incarcerated Brother: Encouragement, Hope, and Healing for Inmates and Their Loved Ones." And it really is - it documents his longtime friendship with an incarcerated young man, and also advice for people in similar situations. So talk a little bit about some of the advice that you give. It's very, very specific.
HARPER: Extremely specific.
MARTIN: Give an example.
HARPER: An example is, literally, breaking down your day into time, into actually using your time. Get up. From 6:00 a.m. to 6:05, brush my teeth. 6:05 to 6:10, 6:12, I'm going to wash my underarms, wash my body. Literally, breaking down the day.
MARTIN: Why did you feel that was important?
HARPER: Because he said to me, all these days run together and I can't actually do anything with the days. I can't do anything with the time. And I said, the only way we're going to actually help you while you're inside is for you to use the time. And I'm going to need you to develop these habits for when you get out because, listen, using the time effectively - I talk about his idea being an active architect of our own life. It's something that he loved. This idea that you can build a life like an architect builds a structure, but you have to approach it with the same level of specificity. So many of us would ask for more specificity from an architect building our house than we ask of ourselves in building our lives.
MARTIN: You're also very tough on him, if I could - I don't know if you see it that way.
HARPER: Tough love. Tough love.
MARTIN: Tough love on what you perceived as some of his emotional issues. Like, you came to believe that he kind of had a bent for self-sabotage.
MARTIN: One of the things you were concerned about is that he kept trying for parole, and as those dates got closer, you were worried that he would sabotage his actual opportunities for release.
MARTIN: Why would somebody do that?
MARTIN: This is something that a lot of people hear. But why would he do that...
HARPER: Fear, fear, fear.
MARTIN: ...And how did you help him overcome it?
HARPER: Fear, fear, fear, fear.
HARPER: We all have inherited so many types of fears, whether they're race-based, culture-based, gender-based, age-based, family-based. And then we get comfortable with these fears. Oftentimes, the incarcerated mind gets more comfortable with the incarceration.
MARTIN: Two questions emerge, though. On the one hand, I want to go back to the question that he asked you, which is really, who are you to be telling him what to do having never lived this life?
HARPER: So many of us want to be very didactic and want to talk about differences. But the thing is, is that if you look somebody in the eye and you say, I love you, I care about you and you're sincere, it doesn't matter if you grew up in two different places, two different - you had horns growing out of your head. You're black, green. You're white. You're whatever. It doesn't matter. I just left a prison five minutes ago. I was just with a group of kids here in D.C. And the one young man said to me, why do you care about us? And I say, why wouldn't I care about you? He said, but you don't even know me. I said, but I can love you anyway. It's about sincerity. That's why I want to encourage people who don't think about the prison system to get more involved.
MARTIN: That was going to be my question to you...
MARTIN: ...Which is, there are people who will be listening to our conversation, will be saying, well, that's fine, but I'm not a famous actor. And I'm not sure a lot of people would necessarily think that this would be an interest of yours. And so how did this become an interest and a passion of yours?
HARPER: I was born in Iowa, and my grandfather had a farm in Iowa. And it was in Fort Madison, Iowa where there was a prison. And I would go down to eat and there would, sometimes, there would be strange men at the breakfast table. And I'd say, who is this? And my grandfather would say, oh, he just got out of prison. He needed help getting back on his feet. So I'm going to give him a job on the farm. He's going to stay here for a while.
And I was in Iowa recently, campaigning for the president. And a man came up to me and said, remember me? He shook my hand. He's almost 85 years old. He said, your grandfather took me in. We used to have breakfast together. I heard - I saw in the paper you're going to be here campaigning. I just wanted to come and say hello. And that brought me to tears. And it touched me so much that we're all connected in this. You know, Dr. King said, we're all tied together in a garment of mutual destiny. And I totally believe that. So that's why I do this.
MARTIN: Hill Harper's latest book is "Letters to an Incarcerated Brother: Encouragement, Hope, and Healing for Inmates and Their Loved Ones." He was kind enough to stop by our Washington, D.C. studios. Hill Harper, thanks so much for speaking with us.
HARPER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.