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John Legend knows the obstacles of life after prison. He wants you to know them too

Singer and activist John Legend narrates the short film documentary HOME/FREE.
Eric Williams
Singer and activist John Legend narrates the short film documentary HOME/FREE.

When incarcerated people leave prison, are they actually free?

Turns out, the singer/songwriter John Legend is one of 113 million American adults who has had a family member incarcerated. He tells his family's story in this 30-minute documentary that asserts people can't be free unless they have the necessary resources when they leave prison. From the get-go HOME/FREE lists the problems with re-entry into their community.

"I have the ability to go where I want. I do. But at what cost?" says Anthony Ray Hinton, one of several people featured in "Home/Free, which was produced by groups advocating for formerly incarcerated people. "After spending 30 years behind bars, you have no medical insurance. You have no place to live, no job. How does one pay the rent, if they have no job? How does one go and buy clothes, if they have no job? How do you buy food, if you have no job? Freedom is not the way that I always thought it would be."

The short documentary highlights the experiences of three formerly incarcerated people who were able to find job opportunities after leaving prison, due to programs like Rework Reentry. But that's not the case for everyone.

John Legend spoke with NPR's Michel Martin about the short film.

The interview has been edited for clarity and length.


Interview Highlights

On why Legend got involved with HOME/FREE

I actually started thinking about this issue because of my sister's babies' father. He had gotten in trouble multiple times with the law. He had come from a family where multiple family members of his had gotten locked up, so it was kind of like a cycle that kept repeating. I wanted my nephews to break that cycle, but part of breaking that cycle was him being able to work. And seeing how many barriers there were in front of that, he reached out to me and said, 'John, you should look at this issue and think about it, see what you can do to help.'

I've had multiple family members and neighbors and friends I grew up with who have had to experience what it's like to come back home. Some of them spent quite a long time in prison, and coming back home is very difficult and there are just so many doors and barriers that are in your way. And a lot of [the barriers] are through laws and regulations that make it harder for people to come back and live a productive life. Rules that make it harder to vote, rules that make it harder to get a home or rent a home, rules that make it harder to even chaperone a school trip for your kids.

Movie poster for HOME/FREE, a short documentary that sheds light on the unseen obstacles individuals face after incarceration.
/ Slack
/
Slack
Movie poster for HOME/FREE, a short documentary that sheds light on the unseen obstacles individuals face after incarceration.

On the people featured in the film

Storytelling is very important when you're trying to make change in the world. Part of the change has to be legislative, but at the bottom line, all these folks are human beings with individual stories, with emotional arcs and family members. So, it's important for people to really connect with human beings who are affected by this system and learn more about them. I think that's a great way to change people's hearts and minds.

Plenty of folks in this documentary actually did what they were accused of. They've spent significant time in prison or jail, and they want to come back to the world and be part of society. What I always try to convince people of is that it's good for all of us if these folks have something to do, something to motivate them, something to make them want to wake up every morning and be excited to face the day. We're all better off when these folks feel like they can contribute, and that means they're more likely to be better citizens. They're less likely to get in trouble again and end up back in prison or jail. It makes us all safer and makes us all more secure. So, yes, most of these folks did what they were accused of, but we can't punish them forever.

On why he thinks we need this conversation now

It's a tough time to talk about reform in our system because there was a spike in crime, particularly in 2020 and 2021. And, of course, we have a gun problem in America where guns are everywhere. There are all kinds of reasons people are concerned about safety. But we're all better off when folks who have paid their debt to society [can] come home and contribute productively to society. If they can't, then they end up with a recidivism problem. Because if they can't contribute legitimately to the economy, then they'll find illegitimate ways to do so, and that is not going to be safer and it's not going to be better for society.

I can't unknow all the things I know about what's happening in this country. It's all in my head and I want to make the world better. So much of the way our people experience this country is affected by our interactions with police and with the criminal legal system. If we really believe that our lives matter, one of the areas that we have to focus on is our criminal legal system. And I care enough about a brighter future for our country — and a brighter future for Black and brown people who have been for too long excluded and over-punished and marginalized in this country.

Home/Free was made in partnership with FREEAMERICA, Next Chapter, the Equal Justice Initiative and Slack. It's available to watch on Amazon Prime Video.

Chad Campbell produced the audio version and Olivia Hampton edited. contributed to this story

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Lilly Quiroz (she/her/ella) is a production assistant for Morning Edition and Up First. She pitches and produces interviews for Morning Edition, and occasionally goes to the dark side to produce the podcast Up First on the overnights.