The life of Alice Marie Johnson seems every bit like a Hollywood movie. But to her, the facts of her life leading up to the moment she was pardoned in August are all too real.
The 65-year-old great grandmother was raised in Mississippi as one of nine children of sharecroppers. She eventually became a single mother and had five children of her own.
But a series of misfortunes occurred all at once that led her to a life of crime. Johnson lost her longtime job at FedEx. She got a divorce. And her youngest son was killed in a motorcycle crash. Out of panic and desperation, she turned to drug crime.
By the time she was arrested in 1993 for nonviolent drug offenses, authorities said she’d become tied up with a multi-million dollar drug empire in Memphis with links to Colombian drug kingpins. She was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. It was her first criminal offense.
“It feels like you’re just waiting to die,” she said in a 2018 interview. “I had no release date, and that was a dark cloud. It felt like no matter what I did, it wouldn’t change. I’d die in prison.”
Over time she became a symbol of excessive sentencing in the United States for nonviolent drug offenses. During her time behind bars, she became a vocal advocate for criminal justice reform and reducing the nation’s ballooning prison population, attributable in large part to nonviolent drug offenses.
Johnson’s case drew the attention of celebrities like Kim Kardashian and groups like the American Civil Liberties Union. After Kardashian voiced support for her during a visit to the White House, Johnson’s federal sentence was commuted in 2018. By then she had spent after over 20 years in prison. In August of this year, Johnson was granted a full and unconditional pardon.
“I’m an example of a woman who has been given a second chance in life. There are so many others who deserve that same second chance,” she said in her remarks during 2019’s prison reform summit. “And so I’m grateful for platforms like this, for events like this today, that magnifies that need—because somehow, when you see a face, when you see another human being like me who has been separated from their family almost 22 years, that changes things, that changes heart.”
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