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Free America:

John Legend Launches Initiative To Bring An End To Mass Incarceration

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by Ann Brown

America has a major mass incarceration problem. In fact, more than 2.4 million people in the United States are in prison. “Since 1980, the number of incarcerated citizens in the US has more than quadrupled, an unprecedented rise that can attributed to four decades of tough-on-crime oneupmanship, and a draconian war on drugs,” reports Vice.

These depressing numbers have led the singer John Legend to launch a campaign to end mass incarceration. His initiative is called Free America and he debuted it the Grammy- and Oscar-winning singer during a visit and performance at a correctional facility in Austin, Texas, late last week.

“We have a serious problem with incarceration in this country,” Legend said. “It’s destroying families, it’s destroying communities and 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.”

Legend also plans to visit a California state prison and co-host a criminal justice event with Politico in Washington, D.C., later this month. And he will call on help from other artists and organizations committed to ending mass incarceration, reports The Huffington Post.

“I’m just trying to create some more awareness to this issue and trying to make some real change legislatively,” he said. “And we’re not the only ones. There are senators that are looking at this, like Rand Paul and Cory Booker, there are other nonprofits that are looking at this, and I just wanted to add my voice to that.”

“Once you have that tag of a felony on your name, it’s hard for you to do anything,” Legend said. “Getting those reduced to misdemeanors really impacted a lot of lives and we hope to launch more initiatives like that around the country.”

Mass incarceration also has a major impact on community, especially communities of color as a majority of inmates are minorities. Civil Right advocate Michelle Alexander told FRONTLINE in an interview in 2013, that mass incarnation has wide ramifications on communities. “The impact that the system of mass incarceration has on entire communities, virtually decimating them, destroying the economic fabric and the social networks that exist there, destroying families so that children grow up not knowing their fathers and visiting their parents or relatives after standing in a long line waiting to get inside the jail or the prison — the psychological impact, the emotional impact, the level of grief and suffering, it’s beyond description. And yet, because prisons are typically located hundreds or even thousands of miles away, it’s out of sight, out of mind, easy for those of us who aren’t living that reality to imagine that it can’t be real or that it doesn’t really have anything to do with us,” she said.

And the impact on the community is long-lasting–even after incarceration ends. It is extremely difficult for ex-felons to get employment. “I think most people have a general understanding that when you’re released from prison, life is hard. You have to work hard to get your life back on track, get it together. But I think most people imagine if you really apply yourself, you can do it. It just takes some extra effort. The people who believe that rarely have actually been through the experience of being incarcerated and branded a felon,” says Alexander.

Added Alexander, “Hundreds of professional licenses are off limits to people who are convicted of a felony, and sometimes people will say, well, maybe they can’t get hired, but they can start their own business; they can be an entrepreneur. In some states you can’t even get a license to be a barber if you’re convicted of a felony. Can’t get a job. Can’t find work in a legal economy anywhere.”

No, if you take a hard look at it, I think the only conclusion that can be reached is that the system as it’s presently designed is designed to send people right back to prison, and that is in fact what happens the vast majority of the time.

Most people who are released from prison return within a few years, and the majority in some states return in a matter of weeks or months, because the challenges associated with mere survival on the outside are so immense.

Ann Brown is a longtime New York journalist whose columns appear in The Network Journal, New York Trend and other publications. She currently resides in Cape Verde.

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