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Actor Hill Harper On His Life-Changing 'Letters' From An Inmate

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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.


Interview Highlights

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.

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