Clemency seeker to Obama: please don't forget us

Obama recently granted clemency to 231 people.
Obama recently granted clemency to 231 people.

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    Obama recently granted clemency to 231 people.

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Obama recently granted clemency to 231 people. 01:19

Story highlights

  • Alice Marie Johnson: Obama's clemencies are heartening, but there are thousands like me still waiting
  • I take responsibility for bad choices, but my life would be different if I were sentenced today, she writes

Alice Marie Johnson is a 61-year-old grandmother who has served 20 years in prison for a first time non-violent offense. An online petition on her behalf has garnered more than 100,000 signatures. The opinions expressed here are hers.

(CNN)The week before Christmas, President Obama gave a second chance -- in the form of clemency -- to 231 people. I was not among them, but since many of them, like me, were incarcerated on drug-related charges, I feel I know their stories.

I am only one of thousands of first-time, non-violent offenders given a mandatory and lengthy prison terms after committing a crime under financial distress.
Alice Marie Johnson
In 1996, I was given a death sentence without sitting on death row. I was convicted as a first-time nonviolent drug offender to life behind bars in federal prison. Since I went to prison, the laws governing my wrong-doing have changed. If I were convicted again today for the same crime, my life might look very different.
Last month, as I was preparing to put on a short play I wrote, entitled "The Strength To Be," a fellow inmate pulled me aside and gave me the news that the Obama Administration had just started announcing its next slate of clemencies. My mind went racing. What if this could be my chance to be reunited with the outside world, to see my family or what is left of it?
For 20 years I have been incarcerated, and I won't lie, it's hard to keep the hope of freedom alive for that long. But my faith in God has carried me this far.
Despite the impending announcement, I knew that the show had to go on. I channeled the uncertainty of my future into my play and danced a duet to Whitney Houston's song, "I Didn't Know My Own Strength."
"Hold my head up high
I was not built to break.
I didn't know my own strength."
I held on to those lyrics for dear life, because by the time the song was over, I knew my name was not on that list. I found myself repeating one line, "I was not built to break."
Before my incarceration, I had a full life. I married my childhood sweetheart, and became the mother to five beautiful children. As the years went on I became a facilitator training people on how to be managers. I was a manager at FedEx for seven years. Life for a time was good.
But after almost two decades together and a very tumultuous relationship, my husband and I divorced in 1989. It was during this time that my life began to spiral out of control. I lost my job -- and -- then my youngest son was tragically killed in a motorcycle accident.
No mother should have to bury her child. This weight was unbelievable, and it was a burden I couldn't sustain. I made some very poor decisions out of desperation.
I want this part to be clear: I acknowledge that I have done wrong. I made the biggest mistake of my life to make ends meet and got involved with people selling drugs.
This was a road I never dreamed of venturing down. I became what is called a telephone mule, passing messages between the distributors and sellers. I participated in a drug conspiracy and I was wrong.
My trial took a toll on my family. At the time of my conviction, I had two children in college and a senior in high school. Bryant, the senior, ended up dropping out of school because of the trial. Tretessa had a good paying job with Motorola and was flying down to support me. Members of the community were at my hearings encouraging me and hoping for the best.
But I was convicted on October 31, 1996 -- and sentenced to life in prison. The day after my oldest son Charles "celebrated" his 20th birthday. It was his first birthday spent away from me. It's hard to imagine that I have now served 20 years of my life sentence for that one mistake.
The United States leads the world in incarceration rates, with five percent of the world's incarcerated population and one-quarter of the world's prisoners. I am one of thousands of first-time, nonviolent offenders who were given mandatory lengthy prison terms.
During my two decades in here, I've become an ordained minister and a mentor to young women who are also in prison. And if I get out -- I have a job secured, and plan to continue to help those in prison and work hard to change our justice system.
My daughter started a petition to President Obama asking him to grant me clemency, and more than 100,000 people have signed it. It a source of strength and hope for me -- a chance to be free.
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The President has made an incredible push at helping to right the wrongs of our criminal justice system. I applaud him and hold out hope for me and thousands of others who face lifelong sentences for nonviolent crimes. But with the historic Obama administration coming to an end, this could be a last chance at freedom for me and for many others -- so I also hope he moves quickly. I hope his administration will process all the applications for clemency currently waiting for the President's review.
No matter what happens, I was not built to break. I will keep writing. I will continue to hold my head high and live a productive life either as a free woman or here behind bars. God has shown me my strength.