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Hill Harper: Actor on a Mission to Fight ‘Hyper-Incarceration’ in U.S.

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People probably respond with disbelief when they learn for the first time that one of their favorite actors, Hill Harper, is also a bestselling author. Make that bestselling author times four. His past books such as Letters to a Young Brother and Letters to a Young Sister have sold millions of copies.

Harper, 47, spent the last 9 years starring as the brainiac forensic investigator on CSI: NY. Now starring on the USA Network’s Covert Affairs as a Colombia-based CIA bureau chief, he has somehow — somehow — found time to write his fifth, and he says probably final, non-fiction book, Letters to an Incarcerated Brother: Encouragement, Hope, and Healing for Inmates and Their Loved Ones.

Harper’s newest book, released this week, is part advice to inmates, part wake-up call to America regarding the alarming rate at which America is incarcerating its population.

“Our system of incarceration in this country is more than broken,” said Harper. “If we just look at some of the data: we go back about 30 years, we had about 300,000 incarcerated people in this country. Now we have 2.4 million.”

By highlighting such statistics, Harper hopes to bridge the gap between Hollywood and the ‘hood.

“I believe that anybody that's been blessed with resources or a platform — if you’re not going to use it to help somebody, why do you have it? What's the purpose?” he said.

“Dr. King said, ‘We are all tied together in a garment of mutual destiny.’ Which says to me no matter how well I may be doing in Hollywood, if a young brother or sister in Louisiana, the South Bronx, the South Side of Chicago, South Central Los Angeles — is not doing well, then I'm not doing very well.”

A deep intellectual, Harper attended Brown University, then shot hoops with President Obama while they both attended Harvard Law School at the same time. Harper has since studied the incarceration issue to uncover what he sees are some unpleasant facts.

Harper mentioned that, “The primary individuals we’re locking up are African-American, and Latino, and immigrant young men, that come from primarily poor and decrepit school systems.

“Some people talk about this as a new Jim Crow or as modern-day slavery,” he said.

Highlighting consequences that arise when the free-market takes control of the imprisoned-market, Harper assigns some of the blame for the rising number of incarcerated young males to governments which look increasingly to private companies to run their prisons.

“These corporations are actually publicly traded on stock exchanges and what you can do as an investor is actually invest in the idea that we're going to lock more people up. And what happens if you're a private prison, you are actually incentivized to make sure you're not doing any rehabilitation at all and you're coming back.”

Asked why African-Americans are almost seven times more likely to be incarcerated than white people, Harper explained, “Most experts will tell you that it goes back again to the war on drugs and stop and frisk policies.

“You can have 5 grams of crack cocaine … and there are people doing 12 to 14 years for that.”

Locking people away for non-violent crimes, and for long stretches, only makes recidivism more likely, according to Harper.

“You’re in a situation where you have limited education opportunities, you don’t have any money, you can’t get a job, what are you going to do? You’re going to go back to this criminal network that you actually made while you were in prison,” he said.

But impassioned political and economic arguments aside, Harper says he wrote Letters to an Incarcerated Brother to provide hope and advice not just for inmates, though many have written him personally after reading his previous books.

“This book is not just for individuals who are in prison — in a physical prison. Many of us are in prisons not made of iron bars that I hope this book will help set free,” said Harper.

“Fundamentally speaking, it is a motivational book and a book about inspiration — a book that reinforces the idea or the fact that no matter who you are, no matter where you're from, you can live a great life.”

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