If mass incarceration doesn’t affect you in a major way, it’s easy to go about your day and not think much of it. But singer-songwriter John Legend has made it his mission to reform the way we do things in the United States so that we can end a vicious cycle.
Legend believes we have a major issue of mass incarceration, and that problem can’t be solved until we address the over-reliance on jails.
He’s founded the FREEAMERICA campaign, which strives to build thriving, just, and equitable communities by giving every person freedom from the systemic hurdles that hold them back and the opportunity to unlock their greatest potential. He also supports the Safety+Justice Challenge, which is also actively trying to do something about the issues.
“We’re the most incarcerated country in the world,” Legend said. “There were a set of policies that we enacted over the last few decades to make that happen. I’m joining a movement to help reverse some of the mistakes that we’ve made over the past few decades.”
While visiting Travis County Jail, Legend spoke with women inmates there to hear their stories.
With 82% of women in jails having a substance abuse problem, it’s not uncommon to hear a story like one inmate who talked to Legend.
“I’m an addict. I’ve been in and out of jail for 11 years. I keep coming back because nothing changes, because jail’s easy. Jail is somewhere I come and I can get sober,” the woman said. “But when I get out, there’s not a whole lot of treatment facilities. There’s not a whole lot of places we can go. I’m facing 5 to 99 right now. I don’t even know how that happened. I don’t remember.”
By highlighting human stories, supporting innovation projects, and encouraging productive policy change, FREEAMERICA aims to amplify the conversation about mass incarceration at the local, state and national levels.
Legend said he wants to find a solution that’s more restorative, that will actually help people like the woman he spoke to, so that some of the resources that are now spent on locking people up can be put toward services that are going to help them live a better life.
“People are facing addiction problems, mental health problems, and a lot of times what the system says is, ‘We’re going to use one tool to fix all of these issues that people have, which is: Let’s lock ‘em up,’” Legend said.
“If somebody would have taken the time to treat a disease 20 years ago, then I wouldn’t be here — old enough to be most of these women’s mother,” another inmate said. “And my children would not be following in my footsteps.”
Some of the statistics on incarceration in the United States are quite jarring.
According to the Safety and Justice Challenge website:
- Majority of people who are jailed have not been convicted of a crime.
- Despite the country being safer now than it was decades ago — violent and property crime is down by about half since their peak — annual admissions to jails nearly doubled between 1983 and 2013.
- About 75% of people who are in jail are in for nonviolent traffic property, drug or public order offenses.
- Serious mental illness affects one-in-six men and one-in-three women in jail.
- The female prison population has doubled since 1990.
And there’s more.
“Unfair, ineffective and inefficient justice systems do not increase public safety or the well-being of individuals and their communities,” said Laurie Garduque, director of Criminal Justice with the MacArthur Foundation. "They are inconsistent with American ideals.”
Click here to learn more about FREEAMERICA.
Click here to learn more about the Safety and Justice Challenge.