Most people know John Legend as a 10-time Grammy Award-winning singer and songwriter with a smooth, soulful delivery of R&B ballads with thoughtful lyrics and a timeless sound. But for men and women who are trapped in a cycle of crime and incarceration, Legend is more than just a musician—he is an advocate, supporter, and ally in working for change in the criminal justice system.
In April, Legend launched FREE AMERICA, a campaign focused on making prisons places of transformation, and not simply warehouses to put people who need help. The organization seeks to provide a voice to those behind bars, and to allow them to tell their stories—and their hope for the future.
Much of Legend’s passion for reforming the justice system comes from his personal upbringing. When his maternal grandmother passed away, he watched his mom struggle with depression and addiction, eventually resulting in a prison sentence.
“My mother didn’t need punishment,” Legend says in an interview with People magazine. “She needed help.”
“What’s true of drug criminalization is, unfortunately, true of our criminal-justice system in general,” Legend says. “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 a recent TED Talk appearance, Legend describes going on a “listening tour” to hear from those impacted by incarceration, as well as those in positions of authority who are able to introduce legislation and enact change. “[W]e’ve seen that redemption and transformation can happen in our prisons, our jails and our immigration detention centers, giving hope to those who want to create a better life after serving their time.”
After a brief introduction, Legend introduces the audience to James Cavitt, a resident of San Quentin State Prison who is preparing for release in the coming months. “James, like millions of people behind bars, is an example of what happens if we believe that our failings don’t define who we are, that we are all worthy of redemption and if we support those impacted by mass incarceration, we can all heal together.”
From prison, Cavitt shares a spoken-word performance with the audience—a hopeful story about freedom and hope. “I’ve come to the stark realization that prison—it really is what you make it,” he reflects. “You see, in spite of the harshness of my reality, there is a silver lining. I knew that my freedom was gonna come, it was just a matter of time. And so I treated my first steps as if they were my last mile, and I realized that you don’t have to be free in order to experience freedom.”
Legend concludes the TED Talk with a performance of the Bob Marley song, “Redemption Song,” reminding those listening that freedom is not something determined by physical location.
Prison Fellowship believes that no one is beyond God’s redemptive reach, and that restoration is possible for millions of men and women behind bars. Through in-prison evangelism events and Bible studies, those in prison are shown the freedom from sin that is available through Christ. And with the help of thousands of volunteers across the country, these men and women are equipped to use this freedom to make a difference in communities both inside and outside of prison.
To learn more about how you can be a part of this transformation in the lives of prisoners and their families, visit www.prisonfellowship.org/action.