January 1, 2018

'Help, not punishment': John Legend lends his support to local advocates for criminal justice

 'Help, not punishment': John Legend lends his support to local advocates for criminal justice

Since Derrick Perique, 32, got out of prison, he’s been on a mission to help others see more clearly. On Saturday, though, he could have been forgiven if he had stars in his eyes.

Perique graduated with a degree in optician work from a small re-entry program at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola. After his release in 2013, he worked hard, saved his money and partnered with an eyeglasses maker.

On Saturday, at the Perdido Street office of Rising Foundations, a New Orleans business incubator program for former convicts, Perique was able to show his small custom eyeglasses operation to singer-pianist John Legend, the multiple Grammy Award-winner who is headlining the halftime show of the NBA All-Star Game on Sunday.

Through his #FreeAmerica campaign to end mass incarceration, Legend has visited prisons and communities across the nation, meeting with activists and policymakers working for reform of the criminal justice system.

On Saturday afternoon, Legend tweeted: “Louisiana has the highest incarceration rate in the world. But the efforts in NOLA give me hope that together we can end #massincarceration.”

On Saturday morning, he had received a tour of New Orleans led by Norris Henderson, 63, head of a group of formerly incarcerated people called VOTE, for Voice Of The Experienced.

While serving 30 years for murder at Angola, Henderson discovered in a law book that Louisiana allowed convicted felons to vote once their sentences are completed.

Upon his release in 2004, he formed VOTE and began traveling around the state, uttering his catch phrase — “You’re still in the loop” — and registering thousands of ex-convicts who thought they were barred from access to the ballot.

Initially, when a mutual friend suggested meeting with Legend, Henderson was skeptical. “Some guys show up for a photo op and then disappear,” he said. “But John was totally different. He shows up. Not just physically shows up. He shows up and rolls up his sleeves.”

In 2015, Henderson and the rest of the Big Eight, a national leadership group of formerly incarcerated people, met with Legend about their federal “Ban the Box” campaign, an effort to remove questions about criminal history from federal job applications.

Soon, Legend made a video about the campaign; it was linked to an online petition that gathered tens of thousands of signatures in 10 days. In late 2015, the Big Eight headed to the White House, where they met with senior staff. The following Monday, President Barack Obama signed an executive order banning the box. Henderson's admiration for Legend is returned. “I love Norris,” said Legend, who called Henderson “brilliant and gregarious and a great leader, a great organizer.”

Yet success stories like Perique’s are the result of concerted efforts, as was made clear during a discussion Saturday involving Legend and about three dozen other people — policymakers, crime victims, public officials and people with criminal records — moderated by Charmel Gaulden, who leads the public-safety grant program at Baptist Community Ministries.

Legend’s interest in Rising Foundations reflects his interest in keeping ex-prisoners from getting back into trouble. So Gaulden asked Criminal District Court judges like Arthur Hunter and Laurie White about their intensive re-entry program for people getting out of prison, which requires all of its graduates to earn a GED and get further academic and hands-on education.

As a result of that re-entry program, Perique learned to grind lenses on an outdated manual hand grinder. To tint lenses, he used a crock pot. But he emerged from prison with a degree and newfound skills, knowing that he would be under White’s supervision for five years. In addition, with help from Rising Foundations, Perique wrote a business plan; was connected to business training and free legal and accounting help; and was paired with a professional in his field.

In an effort to humanize people who have been in prison, #FreeAmerica uses film and online interviews to tell people’s stories. This past year, it also helped to oust six-term Sheriff Joe Arpaio in Phoenix and State's Attorney Anita Alvarez in Chicago, both of whom were beaten by reform-minded opponents endorsed by Legend.

“My family always raised me to believe that part of being successful is giving back,” Legend told the group Saturday. So, in 2007, he started the Show Me Campaign, focused on making sure that each child could get a quality education. However, he found that many of the children at schools he worked with were living in single-parent homes with an absent parent who was imprisoned. That led to #FreeAmerica.

As a teenager, Legend lived with his dad, with help from his extended family, because his mother, who suffered from depression and drug dependency, was cycling in and out of jail. “It was tough for us to deal with,” he said. “And the thing I learned is that someone going through what my mother was going through needed help, not punishment.”

Legend found that the best way to change a punitive-minded system was to join forces with local activists like Henderson. “With their help, we’re helping to move the conversation in the right direction, using our influence to make real change,” Legend said.