I first met Alice Marie Johnson in April 2013. Seeking to tell the stories of the “living dead,” or the over 3,200 people serving life sentences without parole for nonviolent offenses, I wrote to prisoners around the country. I had originally written to Alice’s cellmate, but Alice then wrote to me, and soon we were talking on the phone and emailing. Alice had been sentenced to die in prison for her role in a nonviolent drug conspiracy, her first arrest or conviction. I profiled her story in “A Living Death,” a report we published later that year, and we featured Alice in a national campaign.
Alice and I stayed in close touch over the years. I also got to know some of the members of her close-knit family who were fighting to bring her home. When Alice’s clemency petition was denied by President Obama without explanation in the final days of his presidency, I was shocked and devastated.
Alice’s situation seemed hopeless until a video interview she gave with Mic.com in October 2017 went viral. Kim Kardashian saw the video and asked her lawyer, Shawn Holley, what could be done. We assembled a team of lawyers to pursue clemency for Alice: Shawn, me from the ACLU, and Brittany Barnett from the Buried Alive Project. We also brought on attorney Mike Scholl to try to get a sentence reduction through the courts in Memphis. We put in months of work on the clemency case and something amazing happened. Last week, President Trump commuted Alice’s sentence, and she was released after having served almost 22 years in prison.
The interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
How did it feel when you got your sentence?
I was numb. I couldn’t believe I was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole. My family was in the courtroom, and when they announced it, there was an audible gasp. After that horrible gasp, there was a moment of silence and then just uncontrollable weeping in the courtroom. I was gutted. I looked at my elderly parents. My dad was strong and didn’t usually cry. He was sobbing. I was trying to hold my tears in check, swallowing them down and telling my family it was going to be okay and this was not the end.
How would you explain what it means to be sentenced to life without parole?
It feels like you’re just waiting to die. I had no release date, and that was a dark cloud. It felt like no matter what I did, it wouldn’t change that I’d die in prison. My final resting place was supposed to be in there. I’ve been told the death certificate for a dead prisoner will say you escaped your sentence only by death. And that was the way I was supposed to leave prison. Not walking out, but carried out lifeless and cold.
So it felt like even if I work hard, I’ll never have a chance to go back into society to show my rehabilitation or contribute to society again. But while they sentenced me to life, they couldn’t take my life from me like that. I could still choose to live. Incarcerated isn’t powerless. I still knew my power was in deciding who I am. “Lifer”: That’s a label, but that wasn’t me. I decide who I am. I’m Alice.
What were some of the hardest moments you experienced during the almost 22 years you were in prison?
The birth of my grandchildren was the hardest. Not being able to hold them when they were born, brand new in the world. Or see them grow up like a grandmother should. So hearing them call me grandma on the phone was bittersweet. Now I have 6 grandchildren. And I’m going to hear them call me grandma face to face.
The death of my parents was hard, too. We were all close. I had been incarcerated for two years when my oldest sister passed away. I couldn’t go to the funeral. Death was always with me in prison, but then I couldn’t grieve the deaths of family members properly who were outside. I couldn’t go to the funeral of my mother, of my father, of my oldest sister.
Can you describe what it was like to be separated from your family?
I missed all the Christmases and Thanksgivings. Until the day my mother’s memory slipped the way of Alzheimer’s, she always asked me the same question every time we talked. She asked, “Do you think you will be home for Christmas this year?” She always asked that of me, even in January. She was asking me about coming home, but it always felt like she was calling me home.
I missed all the important events in my children’s lives. My son’s becoming a fireman. My daughter’s graduation from college. Her getting a modern technology leader of the year award — a national engineering honor. I was so proud of her for winning that award, and it was hard to see pictures and not be there with my little girl who was now an accomplished woman.
I missed telling my grandchildren bedtime stories. I loved telling stories to my children. I even wrote stories to tell them. My family likes to sit down at the dinner table every night and eat together. I missed that too.
What has your family said over the years to you that affected you the most, whether sharing their pain or giving you strength?
Our family never accepted that I was going to be in there until I died. Never.
They knew I was alive and that my crime wasn’t deserving of a life sentence without parole. They knew it was an injustice. When I saw them really start to get excited and energized is when you started your campaign to end mass incarceration. That was some of the most hope my family had since I had been locked up. They felt certain if people could just see me, then something would happen. When you came out with that report and it started to get visibility, that’s when big hope came alive.
How you were you able to keep up your relationship with your family, and what were the obstacles that you faced?
The physical distance. It wasn’t a day trip to visit me. Female prisons are more spread out than men’s. My first prison was in California, a long way from my family. My second prison was in Texas, a 10- or 11-hour trip. For even a short visit, my family had to make plans to spend the night.
I was happy when they finally got Skype about three years ago because before then sometimes I just couldn’t see them. Skype allowed me to see my grandchildren and not just talk to them on phone. That made a big difference in being able to actually see my family, even if it was on a screen. There’s a desperate hope to seeing the faces of the people you love and to missing them. I clung to the hope of it.
How did you maintain hope despite feeling like you had been sentenced to death?
Prayer kept my hope alive. My faith told me something good would happen to me. I turned to the Bible for solace.
The work I did for others also gave me hope. I was a hospice volunteer and that experience for me, of sitting with women who were dying, made me more thankful. Helping other people gave me purpose. When you start ministering to others’ needs you get the benefit of it too. When I show hope with others it makes my hope flame up.
I found out I could really live in prison and not just look at the four walls and have that be my world. Just endless days passing me by. So I got involved in so many things. I worked, and I took many classes and programs that prepare you for release. I wanted to be completely prepared if I were released. I wrote plays that were the biggest prisoner participation programs in the facility.
Tell me about what Kim Kardashian West’s involvement in taking up your case has meant for you.
Kim’s involvement was one of the biggest blessings of my life. Here is a woman who knows nothing about me who was touched by my story. And it seemed from that moment on, me and Kim had a heart connection. She proved it by her actions, not just her talk. Kim was hands-on in my case. I can’t imagine what it’s going to feel like to see her, to meet her in person. Kim and you and Brittany Barnett and Shawn Holley are my war angels. And it was clear this whole time that Kim wasn’t playing any games. She was there to win. And she told me she was not going to stop until I came home, even if this didn’t work. She said I’m not going to stop. They were up against a woman who was not going to give up. Make that two women.
When my team of attorneys was assembled, which included Kim’s attorney and the ACLU, seeing that gave me hope. I knew they were not going to stop fighting. They were relentless, working every hour there was on the clock, preparing paperwork whenever there was even a crack opened.
Can you describe how it felt when you got the news that your sentence was commuted?
Oh, my goodness. I felt so elated as if I could jump up and touch the ceiling. Like my body was being lifted up. I was jumping. I have no idea how high, but I felt my feet not touching the ground. Like a weight had been lifted and was no longer held me in place. I was jumping up and down and crying.
Tell me about the moment when you walked out the prison doors and saw your family for the first time?
That felt so wonderful just walking through the doors. When I saw my family, that was it. That was it. The only thing I could think about was, “I’m free, I’m free, I’m free, I’m free for real!” I ran across the street, I felt like I was flying across that street to them. Just watching myself run that fast in the video — I sure didn’t know I ran that fast until I saw myself on the news.
How has freedom been so far?
Wonderful in too many ways to say. I love my own bed that I am sleeping in, it’s so comfortable. And there is no bunk above it. I love the sights, the sounds, and most of all just being with my family. Everywhere I go here in Memphis everyone is embracing me with tears and saying they are so happy for me and how much they have been crying and praying for my family.
What has surprised you the most about life now in 2018 as compared to when you were last free over two decades ago?
The thing that surprised me the most was that people do FaceTime. People used to want to stop and go over and have that physical contact. This technology is overwhelming to me. Nothing looks the same. Some of my favorite haunts are closed now. I loved to take my children on the rides at the amusement park here, and they closed it down. I have a lot of catching up to do.
Do you have a message for the U.S. government?
I do. Thousands of lives are being wasted unnecessarily. Families are being broken apart. People are being locked up for ridiculous amounts of time for no reason. This is not good government. This is not justice. We have to say enough is enough. We have to say it now — not with a focus toward when the next election is and “we’ll wait.” It’s time to fix it now. No waiting. Sentencing reform and clemency for people like me who did not deserve the sentences we got. Do the right thing. Let this be an issue that’s nonpartisan. It’s a humane issue.
Do you have a message for the more than 3,200 people still serving life without parole for nonviolent offenses?
I would tell them never give up your hope. Get your families involved. United, we can make a difference. This is a moment in time when this problem of life without parole is being elevated. We need to work together to raise it up further. Now that my case has magnified this problem again we need to be even more active in this fight. All of us.
What’s next for you? What are your plans?
I’m starting to reconnect with my family and getting to know them all over again. I’m ready to work. I’m ready to continue with this fight to help bring the other 3,200 home. Now that I have a voice, I’m going to use it to fight for those who are still incarcerated, who don’t have a voice like I have right now. Sentencing reform makes sense, and for the sake of humanity, it’s time for some commonsense politics about sentencing. It’s about people’s lives.
Jennifer Turner, Human Rights Researcher, ACLU Human Rights Program