Man of Letters: Hill Harper on the Crisis of Mass Incarceration

Hill Harper.

Hill Harper. (Photo courtesy of Gotham Books)

In his latest self-help book, Letters to an Incarcerated Brother, the actor Hill Harper, who now stars in the USA spy thriller Covert Affairs, takes on the issue of mass incarceration in the United States, which New Yorker staff writer Adam Gopnik has called “the moral scandal of American life.” Mr. Harper, the author of a number of motivational books, including Letters to a Young Brother and The Wealth Cure, attended Harvard Law School, where he met and befriended Barack Obama. Although he is first and foremost an actor, Mr. Harper believes “all of us have the capacity to be masters of many things.” In a recent conversation with the Transom, Mr. Harper told us all about his new book, how it came together and why it may be the last thing he ever writes.

Where did you get the idea for this project?

I started getting letters from a number of young people that are incarcerated. It got to the point where I had to write this book. I had to do something, because I really felt like there was a voice missing in dealing with these issues.

How many letters did you get?

Hundreds of letters. A number of the letters are printed in the book.

Do you still keep in touch?

Yes, it’s been a real special journey. The one thing I want to make sure people know is that it’s not just for individuals who are in a physical prison—it’s for anybody who finds himself somewhat trapped.

Letters_to_an_Incarcerated_BrotherWere you aware of how widespread the reality of incarceration is in this country?

I had a tangential awareness, because mass incarceration affects the African-American community so profoundly, and I had read Michelle Alexander’s amazing book called The New Jim Crow, which talks about the issue from the top down, from the real policy perspective.

What was your main intent in writing this book?

My book is about change from the bottom up, meaning the individual making a change and hopefully changing his life for the positive. We in this country lock up more people than Russia and China combined. And there’s no reason. We’re a better country than that, and we have to do better.

What do you think Mr. Obama has done to ameliorate the problem of mass incarceration?

Well, I’ll tell you, we all can do more. When we just look at the data and we look at the spending and we look at the privatization of prisons, the incentives are wrong right now. There are so many things that we could focus on, and it’s not about decisions that are made at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. It’s about all of us deciding how to deal with the criminal justice system.

On a slightly different note, do you feel like you are more attuned to this issue because you’ve starred in crime dramas?

[Laughs] I don’t think that being in crime dramas helped at all, but one thing about being an actor and traveling around a great deal is that you meet a lot of different people from a lot of different backgrounds. And one recurring theme you start to realize is that “but for the grace of God go I.”

Your new movie, 1982, came out last month. Should we expect more lead roles from you?

Let’s hope. Could you call some of the studio heads and help me out? I love making films, but the best roles are hard to come by.

Do you have any plans for a future book?

You know what? This is it. This is my final nonfiction book. So people are gonna enjoy it or not. I feel like I’ve said all that I want to say. I put everything I got into this one.