Hill Harper is perhaps best known for his characters on television shows such as “CSI: NY” and the cable series “Covert Affairs.” Yet the actor came to Baltimore to tackle a different role: working to help incarcerated individuals across the country — particularly young African-American men.
"To me, this is the issue of our time," said Harper ,who spent Sunday speaking at two city churches — Bethel AME and Empowerment Temple AME —while promoting his fifth book, “Letters to an Incarcerated Brother: Encouragement, Hope, and Healing for Inmates and Their Loved Ones.”
Published this month, the book is the latest in a series of self-help guides that Harper has penned in recent years. “The Conversation,” a New York Times bestseller, dealt with love relationships, while “Letters to a Young Brother” was named a best book for young adults by the American Library Association in 2007.
Now Harper, a graduate of Brown and Harvard universities and founder of the nonprofit Manifest Your Destiny foundation for at-risk teens, has turned his attention to the issue of incarceration and the disproportionate numbers of racial or ethnic minorities incarcerated.
"Our system of incarceration is broken and there seems to be a lack of collective political will to change it," said Harper, who spent several days in Baltimore speaking to audiences at the Enoch Pratt Library and visiting with Maryland inmates to deliver books and messages of hope.
Harper says his inspiration for the book came after receiving moving letters from inmates who yearned for a connection with a successful role model.
"I'm not excusing crime or those who bring poison into the community," he said, "but I do want brothers and sisters in prison to know someone cares. And we can't rely only on government to handle this."
“Letters” seeks to bring compassionate responses to the real-life circumstances of inmates, he said. For instance, the book includes a so-called “Owner's Manual” with educational, employment and other resources — even tips on doing a budget.
Besides correspondence between Harper and inmates, the book also includes contributions from educators, activists and entertainers, including Baltimore's own Charles Roc Dutton and the Rev. Jamal Bryant, pastor of Empowerment Temple.
"The community has rolled over and played dead on this issue," said Rev. Bryant, speaking after a lively service filled with gospel music, liturgical dance and Biblical references. Referencing the disproportionate numbers of African Americans in prison, the pastor said, "If there were any other group with so many people in jail, there would be an outcry."
The church has an active prison outreach ministry, Bryant said. Last month, for instance, hundreds of members formed a human chain around the Baltimore City Detention Center and prayed for those behind bars.
"I was inside and many of the inmates were excited about us being there. Some jumped for joy," said Allen Brewer, 40, a church member. "There are too many young men in there. These are people who need to be educated, they need to be working. When they get out, we want them to get back with their families and the community."
Harper was also a guest at Bethel in West Baltimore, where its members gave him an enthusiastic welcome and purchased books.
"The subject matter is one that impacts so many, whether it's a family member or someone else you may know," said the Rev. Frank M. Reid. He moderated a discussion and book signing last week hosted by the law firm of Murphy, Falcon & Murphy, the Baltimore Urban League and Philanthropik, a local nonprofit.
The pastor added that while his church has done ministry outreach work around incarceration, they would soon be elevating those efforts. "It's a very important issue."
Harper has visited six cities and plans to continue taking his message nationwide. He's also established a website, www.incarceratedbrother.com
"In the face of despair," he said, "we want to encourage inmates and help restore their self-worth."