“I’m not trying to be famous. I’m trying to be free.”
Alice Marie Johnson, 63, didn’t expect to have her life story catapulted into the global spotlight. A former felon enjoying newfound freedom after spending 22 years of what could have been a life sentence in federal prison, she’s telling her story to any and everyone who will listen.
Tinkering with her iPhone and FitBit during her interview with The New Tri-State Defender, Johnson is adjusting to a world she’s been shut off from for the past two decades.
In 1996, Johnson was convicted of one count of money laundering and five counts of drug trafficking for her role in a multimillion dollar cocaine trafficking ring crossing state lines. She was given a mandatory life sentence.
It wasn’t until reality TV star Kim Kardashian West learned of her case and petitioned President Donald Trump to commute her sentence – to which he agreed.
“Everything is new to me. I have an appreciation I’ve never had before,” Johnson said, while taking time out to revel in being free from shackles and iron bars. “I take time to enjoy simple things I took for granted.”
“Like the song Kanye has out, I feel reborn,” she said.
Ironically, Kanye West references her in that song of the same name on the album “Kids See Ghosts,” a collaborative effort between West and rapper Kid Cudi.
Johnson’s tragic tale started in the mid-1990s. She was dealing with the loss of a longtime job, a messy divorce, the death of a child and growing bills. Add in a worsening gambling addiction and she grew desperate for a way out.
“I’m not making any excuses,” Johnson said. “I know I committed a crime.”
Johnson says a friend offered a suggestion to help her out with her problems, getting her involved in the drug business.
“I thought to myself, ‘This is just an ends to a means,’” Johnson said. “This isn’t forever.”
However, the temporary means came to an end after she was arrested, tried and sentenced to life – the mandatory sentence for her crimes. Two other people were sentenced along with her. One of them, Curtis McDonald, was also given a life sentence.
Johnson says her lawyer, who has since passed away, was ineffective at her defense. She told The New Tri-State Defender she was offered a deal that involved serving less time, but her attorney told her not to take it, claiming lack of evidence. That strategy backfired, and Johnson was headed to prison.
“This is real,” Johnson said, describing her first day behind bars. “When the door slammed behind me, it was real. When they put the handcuffs on me, it was real.”
Forced to adapt to a new life, Johnson began to learn about prison life and the inmates she’d be seeing for what would have been the remainder of her life.
“I was in there with very ordinary people,” Johnson said. “They were human beings, most of them locked away for trying to make the best of a bad situation. Most of the people in prison were shocked I had a life sentence because I didn’t act like a ‘lifer.’”
Johnson also detailed many of the other incarcerated women, saying many were mothers and were doing their best to be parents from inside prison walls. “My children asked my opinion before making major decisions,” Johnson said.
Johnson’s daughter was seven months pregnant at the time of her imprisonment. In a twist of fate – her grandchild is now seven months pregnant.
“I’ll be there for the birth, and I’m looking forward to it.”
Enter Kim Kardashian West
So how did a reality TV star with billions of people vying for her attention on a daily basis take notice of a prisoner such as Johnson?
It all started with a tweet.
Johnson did an interview with the news publication “Mic,” where she laid out her case in a video interview that made its rounds on the internet – and eventually into West’s Twitter mentions.
“At first, I just retweeted it, and then I sent it to my attorney,” West told USA Today. “I said to her, ‘Is there anything we can do? Can we hire different attorneys? What are the options here? What can we do?’”
Eventually, West’s work made its way to the Oval Office, where she discussed clemency for Johnson.
“I think to some people it might seem like, ‘OK, Kim made a phone call to the president,’” West said. “We had been in talks and working on this for seven months. And it wasn’t an instant thing.”
President Trump agreed to the clemency. A few days later, Johnson was running into the arms of her family waiting outside the Alabama federal prison she’s been calling home for the past several years.
“I explained to him where I found her, why I believe in her, how people deserve second chances and the president had compassion for her right away,” West said. ”He felt that it was the right thing to do.”
A few days after that, West traveled to Southaven, Miss., to meet Johnson – which drew media from across the country to catch a glimpse of the two.
“We both got bug-eyed and jumped at each other, and gave each other a big hug.”
After knocking out some interviews with national media, the two began to bond during the brief time they had together.
“She stayed about three hours,” Johnson said. “She even called Kanye and let me speak with him.”
As for West, she’s not quite sold on getting into politics.
Social justice crusade
“I’m a determined person when I decide to do something,” Johnson said.
With newfound fame and freedom, Johnson isn’t forgetting about those who are still behind bars due to mandatory and unfair sentencing.
“I have someone who was sentenced with me, however I just can’t focus on his case because there are so many just like him.”
During her interview with The New Tri-State Defender, Johnson mentioned the case of Cyntoia Brown, a woman sentenced to life as a teenager for the 2004 murder of a man who bought her for sex. Prosecutors argue Brown was intending to rob him, as she was found with his wallet shortly thereafter. That case has garnered the attention of West as well.
“Her (Cyntoia’s) case is a state case,” Johnson said, meaning for Brown to get clemency, she’d have to get approval from Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam.
A reminder, Johnson was granted clemency and had her sentence commuted, not vacated. That means Johnson, while free, is still a convicted felon. She does not have – and because of the nature of her crimes – may not be able to have some of her rights (including voting) restored.
That doesn’t really bother Johnson, who told The New Tri-State Defender she’s now putting people over politics.
“I’m going to make President Trump so proud,” Johnson said.
Despite the controversy and criticism the president faces on a daily basis, Johnson said she is eternally grateful and hopes she might be able to meet him face to face, possibly having a deeper conversation about mandatory sentencing.
“I dare not say anything (bad) about President Trump!” Johnson said. “This man is the power behind the pen – he’s the reason I’m free!”
While in prison, Johnson learned several skills such as electrical management, computer skills and pastoral counseling – which helped her secure employment post release. Her new job, which she isn’t revealing just yet, will start when the buzz around her dies down a bit.
“Never give up your hope,” Johnson said. “Prayer changes things. I’m living proof miracles do happen, because I’m not confused. Miracles do happen.”