Editor’s Note: Alice Marie Johnson is a grandmother who has served more than 20 years in prison for a first-time, nonviolent offense. An online petition on her behalf has garnered more than 200,000 signatures. This op-ed has been updated from a version originally published in December 2016. The opinions expressed here are hers. Watch “CNN Tonight” at 10 p.m. ET Thursday for Van Jones’ exclusive interview with Kim Kardashian West on her reaction to President Donald Trump’s commutation of Alice Marie Johnson.
Alice Marie Johnson first wrote this piece in 2016, and updated it in early May when Kim Kardashian West was advocating on her behalf. On June 6, President Trump commuted her sentence. After serving 21 years of a life sentence received after a conviction for a first-time nonviolent drug offense, Johnson is expected to be released from prison soon. Kim Kardashian West tweeted: “BEST NEWS EVER!!!!” Her commutation is Trump’s sixth act of clemency since taking office and the second after a celebrity appealed to him. Last month, Trump pardoned Jack Johnson after Sylvester Stallone raised his case with him.
Some refer to prison as a place where hope dies. Some days I’ve found that to be almost right. But at the beginning of my time here I made a pact – that I wouldn’t give up hope. Each time that I’ve come close, God has restored my faith. So when the unlikely voices of Kim Kardashian West and Jared Kushner came together to shine a spotlight on my case, I could only thank God for he works in mysterious ways.
I’ve received media coverage before, but nothing like this. The outpouring of support from people all across the country has been overwhelming. More than 200,000 people have signed an online petition supporting my release. And it couldn’t come at a better time. With Mother’s Day around the corner, the very thought of being with my family for the first Mother’s Day in 22 years makes me smile.
The week before Christmas 2016, President Barack Obama gave a second chance – in the form of clemency – to 231 people, including my friend Sharanda Jones. I was not among them, but since many such as myself were incarcerated on drug-related charges, I feel I know their stories.
I am only one of thousands of first-time, nonviolent offenders given mandatory and lengthy prison terms after committing crimes under financial distress.
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 wrongdoing have changed. If I were convicted again today for the same crime, my life might look very different.
In November 2016, as I was preparing to put on a short play I wrote, called “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 the Whitney Houston 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 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 5% of the 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 Obama asking him to grant me clemency, and more than 100,000 people have signed it. It was a source of strength and hope for me – a chance to be free.
Obama made an incredible push at helping to right the wrongs of our criminal justice system. And under President Donald Trump, Jared Kushner and others have worked to keep clemency and criminal justice reform in the foreground.
Trump has the power to give me a second chance. He truly has the power to change our justice system for the better. I can only continue to be steadfast and hope that he hears me.
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.