Upon a recommendation from a friend at Allendale Correctional Institute (he is a “resident,” the term they prefer over “inmate”), I bought a copy of Letters to an Incarcerated Brother by Hill Harper. This book would have made little sense outside of my experience working with guys at that state prison.
Even as it is, I still do not fully understand what it’s like to be in prison (and I hope to keep it that way!). Therefore, most of this book challenged my thinking. And that’s a good thing.
But there were also plenty of parts that were easier to understand, even while giving me new insight. This includes when the author makes a connection between historical slavery and the modern prison system.
The Slavery of Prison
In Chapter 8, Harper is reflecting on a statement made by a counselor in a state prison, “I tell all my students who become repeaters, ‘You’re volunteering for slavery.’”
“If you compare the option-stealing measures of the prison system to slave-owner strategies, the similarities are almost mind-blowing. Southern slave owners prevented their slaves from learning to read and write when they could. It kept them isolated and dependent. . . .
In most cases, the poor choice of training programs, the confiscation of books – it’s all there to weaken the resolve and know-how of prisoners. “They’re here to be punished, not rewarded” is the common refrain. . . .
One other strategy that kept Southern slaves dependent and helpless was violence. Fear of punishment kept them from defying their masters and often worked to set one slave against another. Does that remind you of prison as well? Violence between correction officers and inmates, between prisoner and fellow prisoner, between gangs, ensures an atmosphere of fear and desperation and keeps the prison body ineffectual.”
Do you think that comparing the prison system to slavery is far-fetched? Do you think this is a cheap attempt at “race-baiting?” If so, you should try your hand at prison ministry. You should spend time within prison walls, getting to know the men behind bars, and see the culture from an inside perspective.
However, you’d be just as wrong to claim that all prisons (and prison administrators) operated to suppress the “residents” (inmates). Many state prisons are similar to the one I was involved with in Allendale, where the culture was focused on positive change. (For more on that, read here and here and here.)
This would be a good book for anyone who has never worked with people in or coming out of prison, as it explains some of the common mindsets of people who spend time behind bars. This book has challenged my ideologies and made me uncomfortable. We would all benefit by being sharpened (Proverbs 27:17).
On the other hand, some of his writing seems clunky and inauthentic. I may be wrong, but for a book that is supposed to be a collection of letters, I had a hard time believing each chapter was an exact copy of a letter. Random facts seem to be spliced in at odd points.
“Remember the prisoners, as though in prison with them, and those who are ill-treated, since you yourselves also are in the body.” Hebrews 13:3