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.
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"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.