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…
Authored by Glen McStanly