SABILLASVILLE – Some of the teens were there for narcotics possession, some were there for theft or assault—but all were there to hear television actor Hill Harper challenge them to become an “active architect of your own life.”
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The Victor Cullen Center, the highest-security treatment center for male delinquents in Maryland, is the first juvenile center in the country that the star visited as part of a publicity tour for his fifth book, “Letters to an Incarcerated Brother: Encouragement, Hope and Healing for Inmates and Their Loved Ones.”
Harper, who is best known for his roles as investigator Sheldon Hawkes on CSI: NY, and as CIA station chief Calder Michaels in the series Covert Affairs, is also an Ivy League graduate of Brown University and Harvard Law School.
Harper spoke to the youth about how to achieve goals and dreams by designing your life like an architect.
“This concept of being active architects of our own life is kind of an elevated concept that I want you to wrap your head around,” he said to boys between the ages of 15 and 18, sitting in plastic grey stackable chairs. “People told me coming here that you guys might not be able to understand what I’m talking about, but see, I expect more from you all because I can tell that you’re magnificent and that you’re brilliant.”
Harper told the teens that the first stage in the metaphor is ‘blueprinting,’ or making a plan for your life. The second stage is having a solid foundation, made up of elements like motivation, education, money and a career. The next stage is the framework, or the choices that people make, and the last and most important stage is the door, Harper said.
“Doors open and many of us have to let new people, new ideas and new information into our lives…if we’re going to be able to make the choices we need to make to go into the direction we need to go,” he said. “Doors also let people out, and I would suggest to you that the vast majority of us have people in our lives that we need to let out.”
Harper acknowledged that many of the teens at the center could be afraid to do the work and admit they need help.
“Most of you would rather tune me out, most of you don’t want to hear what I have to say,” Harper said. “But there’s one of you here that’s going to do the work.”
The youth at Victor Cullen are sent to the treatment center by court order for behavioral or substance abuse issues, and all are given a specific treatment plan that typically lasts from six to nine months, according to Eric Solomon, a spokesman for the Maryland Department of Juvenile Services.
“The treatment plan really depends on the specific issue,” Solomon said. “They are all there for different reasons…and we want to find out why they are there in the first place, to figure out how to change their way of thinking.”
Solomon added, “Kids that needed the most help are going to this facility. This is essentially their last stop in the state, and if they can’t make it in there they are sent out of state for specific services.”
Victor Cullen relies mostly on locks, bars and fences to restrict freedom instead of staff supervision. During Harper’s November visit, 46 boys lived at the center.
Youths at the other 13 Maryland juvenile services facilities watched Harper via videoconference.
According to Harper, many of these young men are growing up without a positive male role model in their home.
“They desperately are looking for male role models and affection and you could see it out there,” Harper said in an interview. “It’s like they all want affection and role modeling and all that, but they don’t have it in their house and they go and seek it out in the wrong place, in the wrong way, with the wrong people.”
Harper, whose four previous books are all best sellers, said he wrote his first book, “Letters to a Young Brother: Manifest Your Destiny,” in 2006 as a response to letters he received after giving motivational talks at schools, and to provide mentorship for young men and women.
From there he wrote “Letters to a Young Sister: DeFINE Your Destiny.”
His latest book was pre-released to the Victor Cullen library in mid-October so that the youth could read it before Harper’s visit. After Harper spoke, each boy received a signed copy of the book, which addresses issues specific to inmates and their families.
“I think young people gravitate to what they need, however subconscious or unarticulated, and sometimes misguided, as seen by the young population that is currently incarcerated,” said Lori Kebetz, library media coordinator for Juvenile Services Education under the state’s education department. “I think it is interesting that [Harper] intuited those needs…he seemed like a perfect fit in terms of message.”
According to Harper, who also speaks at adult prisons, his message to juveniles is about making a plan.
Yet he said the juveniles are less receptive because “when you’re still young, you think you know everything,” whereas adult inmates are often more reflective about their lives.
“There’s one of you here that I’m going to bump into 10, 15 years from now, you’re going to walk up to me and look me in the eye, shake my hand…and tell me you made it,” Harper said to the boys. “But one of you will be in [prison] blues or oranges…[and will say], ‘I got your book, and I got a lot of time to read it.’ It’s going to be one of you, don’t make it you.”