How John Legend's Personal Tragedy Fueled a Crusade Against the Prison System

John Legend's #FREEAMERICA organization launches new digital storytelling project featuring powerful footage of those affected by the United States incarceration system

Photo: Danny Moloshok/AP Images

John Legend is a man on a mission to transform the United States’ criminal justice system and end mass incarceration.

The 37-year-old singer launched his organization #FREEAMERICA to raise awareness of the alarmingly high number of African Americans currently living in correctional facilities. Legend says that he personally has a number of friends and family members who have been placed in prison.

“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,” Legend revealed to PEOPLE. “My mother’s addiction didn’t just tear her life apart. It tore me and the rest of our family apart, too.”

Legend’s mother was ultimately incarcerated, but it didn’t treat her underlying problem. “My mother didn’t need punishment,” Legend says now. “She needed help.

The prison problem is far from being resolved. The incarceration rate has increased 700 percent in the last 40 years, leaving inmates with no access to mental health care or guidance in battling their drug addictions. According to Legend, the whole philosophy behind prisons is deeply flawed.

“What’s true of drug criminalization is, unfortunately, true of our criminal-justice system in general. 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.”

In an effort to end America’s status as “the most incarcerated country in the world,” Legend has launched a new initiative through #FREEAMERICA called My Potential. The program is a digital storytelling project comprised of powerful videos and photos of individuals affected by the system.

Tyrone, featured in the video above, is just one of the many former inmates with a tale to tell. Growing up with addict parents, he had a strong ambition to be a police office. But his life took a turn for the worse after falling in with the wrong crowd of kids.

“When I was 9 years old, me and some friends decided to break into a house and steal some stereo equipment,” Tyrone says in a clip. “We got locked up, and I was in a dorm with 17-year-olds. They were teaching me stuff that a 9-year-old isn’t supposed to know.”

He was released a short time later, but his stint in lock-up made him a neighborhood celebrity. “So I started doing more crimes – started hanging out with the older kids,” he continues. “Burglary went to robbery, stealing cars and, eventually, I ended up taking somebody’s life when I was 13 years old.”

He was eventually released for this crime. But after being given a life sentence for a second attempted murder, he hit rock bottom. At that point, there was nowhere to go but up.

“I took advantage later on in my life sentence to try to change my life around,” he says. He reconnected with some loved ones and began attending self-help groups. As his life regained focus, he became aware of the enormous number of young people flooding the penitentiary. “I saw what mass incarceration was doing to the youth.”

After receiving parole, he began working in prison outreach programs. “Me and my wife [Patricia] empower and enrich families so they can become better advocates for their loved ones serving a life sentence.”

Tyrone is just one of millions of individuals who have been falsely defined by their mistakes.

“Over the past year I have been on a listening and learning tour, hearing from those most impacted by the system,” Legend says about visiting with those who have been incarcerated, as well as legislators and law enforcement.

“I listened to men who were working together to end what, for nearly all of them, had been generational, cyclical abuse,” he continues.

“Instead of investing our resources in locking people up, let’s invest more of those resources in our fellow citizens so they don’t end up in the system to begin with. And if they do, they can get back on their feet.”

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