John Legend's Family History of Addiction, Incarceration Inspired New Campaign

By Paul Gaita 08/25/16

The singer's #FREEAMERICA organization has launched a digital storytelling initiative called My Potential, which will highlight those affected by incarceration. 

John Legend's Family History of Addiction, Incarceration Inspired New Campaign

Since 2015, Grammy- and Oscar-winning singer John Legend has worked to raise awareness about mass incarceration in the United States through his organization, #FREEAMERICA. The multi-year initiative was designed to directly affect national attitudes and legislation involving incarceration policies in the United States.

Over the last year, Legend undertook a listening and learning tour throughout the country to hear directly from men and women whose lives have been affected by harsh prison sentences. The organization recently kicked off My Potential, a new digital storytelling initiative within #FREEAMERICA which showcases individuals whose lives have been dramatically affected by incarceration. 

In one video, a former inmate named Tyrone retraces the events in his life that led to jail time—from a childhood with addict parents, to the theft of stereo equipment that led to incarceration at the age of nine. After being released, he quickly returned to criminal activity, which culminated in a life sentence for attempted murder. The sentence spurred Tyrone to take decisive steps in turning his life around through self-help groups in prison. After he got out on parole, he and his wife began working in prison outreach programs to “empower and enrich families so they can become better advocates for their loved ones serving a life sentence.”

Legend’s own dedication to the cause is informed by his personal experience with his own mother's incarceration. “As a teenager growing up in Ohio, I watched my mother deal with depression and drug abuse after my maternal grandmother—a person who filled our whole family with love—passed away,” he told People magazine recently. “My mother’s addiction didn’t just tear her life apart. It tore me and the rest of our family apart, too.” His mother’s drug use ultimately sent her to prison, but her problems went untreated. “My mother didn’t need punishment,” he recalled. “She needed help.” 

And while many states and counties have adopted drug courts as a means of providing treatment to offenders with substance use problems, incarceration remains the end result for many individuals. “What’s true of drug criminalization is, unfortunately, true of our criminal justice system in general,” said Legend. “It takes people whom we have failed since birth—subjecting them to substandard food, poor living conditions, failing schools, unsafe communities—and then tries to ‘correct’ them through inhumane, over-punitive treatment.”

“It’s destroying families, it’s destroying communities,” he said. “We're the most incarcerated country in the world, and when you look deeper and look at the reasons we got to this place, we as a society made some choices politically and legislatively, culturally to deal with poverty, deal with mental illness in a certain way and that way usually involves using incarceration.”

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Paul Gaita lives in Los Angeles. He has contributed to the Los Angeles Times, Variety, LA Weekly, and The Los Angeles Beat, among many other publications and websites. 

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