Alice Marie Johnson spent 21 years in federal prison.
“Now, you just imagine, I was told that I would only leave prison as a corpse, that I would take my last dying breath in prison,” Johnson told an audience on Monday at the National Civil Rights Museum. “Do you think that was a recipe for hope?”
But in her new book, After Life: My Journey from Incarceration to Freedom, Johnson said it was steadfast hope that buoyed her as she served time for a drug-related conviction.
“You think about the worst mistake that you have ever made in your life,” she says. “My crime was a non-violent, first-time offense, and for that it netted me life, plus 25 years without the possibility of parole.”
President Donald Trump commuted her sentence last year after reality TV star Kim Kardashian West took up Johnson’s cause, personally pleading her case with the president.
More than two decades ago, Johnson was living in Memphis when a lost job and a death in the family led to financial distress. Desperate choices led to a 1996 conviction on drug conspiracy charges for participating in a local cocaine trafficking ring. Johnson says she never sold drugs, but was a so-called “telephone mule.”
“I was an information passer,” she told WKNO. “I passed phone numbers, not details of any drug transactions.”
Despite her harsh sentence, which was a mandatory minimum at the time, Johnson maintained a faith that she would eventually be released. She unsuccessfully applied for clemency during Barack Obama’s presidency, which granted hundreds of pardons and commuted sentences as he left office.
“America is a country of second chances,” she says. “I have no bitterness concerning what happened to me because I know ultimately everything was used for a purpose.”
Because of the timing of Johnson’s clemency, at a moment of heated political rancor, she’s sometimes asked about the man behind it.
“Even though President Trump granted my clemency, you don’t have to agree with all of his policies. You don’t have to agree with any of his policies. But, can we agree that this is right?” she says. “Look at my case, look at my situation and agree with me and agree that this was the right thing to do.”
Now on a national book tour, the 64-year-old great grandmother is promoting criminal justice reform.
“I must use this platform for those who don’t have one, who don’t have a voice, who don’t have a Kim Kardashian to take their case before a president,” she says. “So I have become their advocate. They have Alice Marie Johnson.”
Johnson says she intends to push for reforms such as`restored voting rights for ex-felons. She also wants to see efforts help former inmates find employment in their communities.
“People who are incarcerated are your neighbors, they’re your family, they’re your friends,” she says. “This must be something that is not just a social justice but a humanitarian issue.”