Alice Johnson, the great-grandmother from Tennessee whose life prison term President Donald Trump famously commuted, is one of the president’s guests to his 2019 State of the Union Address. She has called it an honor.
Johnson, of Memphis, was serving a life term for a drug conspiracy but was widely considered rehabilitated behind bars, including by her own warden. That’s when Trump intervened. Trump said at the SOTU that he was “deeply moved” by Johnson’s story. “She became a prison minister, inspiring others to choose a better path,” said Trump. “She had a big impact on that prison population and far beyond. Alice’s story underscores the disparities and unfairness that can exist in criminal sentencing, and the need to remedy this total injustice.”
He added, “I knew I did something right…she is a terrific woman.” Johnson wiped away tears after Trump’s remarks.
His action to free Johnson came just days after Hollywood reality star Kim Kardashian, visited the White House to plead for Alice Marie Johnson’s release. The cause of the 63-year-old non-violent offender, who became an ordained minister in federal prison, also drew hundreds of thousands of signatures to a petition seeking her release. You can see court documents, such as the original indictment, later in this article. She wrote on Twitter that she couldn’t wait to tell her kids she was trending on Twitter after Trump chose her as a guest.
Johnson has since become an advocate for prison reform. Her Twitter handle is Alice Marie Free.
Video quickly surfaced showing Johnson’s release:
Johnson said in an interview that she would tell Trump thank you for “not just looking at some data about my crime, but actually looking at the person who I have become now and having faith that I deserved a second chance in life.”
Here’s what you need to know:
1. The White House Praises Alice Johnson’s ‘Extraordinary Rehabilitation’
In its statement announcing Alice Johnson was a guest to the SOTU, the White House praised her.
“President Trump granted Alice Johnson clemency on June 6, 2018. Alice had been serving a mandatory life sentence without parole for charges associated with a nonviolent drug case,” the statement says. “During her nearly 22 years of incarceration, Alice accomplished what has been called an “extraordinary rehabilitation.” After her release, she was overjoyed to be reunited with her family. She has now dedicated her life to helping those who are in a similar position as she was and giving a voice to the criminal justice reform movement.”
Alice Johnson wrote on Twitter, “Such an honor!! Thank you, President Trump! @POTUS #SOTU.”
Kardashian West journeyed to the White House to ask Trump to pardon Alice Johnson, 63. Kardashian West visited the White House on May 30, 2018, where she advanced Alice Johnson’s cause in a meeting with presidential son-in-law Jared Kushner and others. Trump later posted a photo of Kardashian with him in the Oval Office.
Here are some of the tweets that Kim Kardashian posted about Alice Marie Johnson:
Trump tweeted about her the day after Johnson’s release.
There was also a petition on Change.org urging Trump to grant Alice Johnson clemency, and she received support from politicians and prison reform advocacy groups. Johnson is not the only federal inmate whose freedom Kardashian West has pursued. She posted on Twitter in support of Matthew Charles, a man sent back to federal prison after being released under President Obama’s drug offender commutations. There has been no word from Trump on the Matthew Charles case, however.
2. Alice Johnson Called Her Term an ‘Unexecuted Sentence of Death’ & Was Described as an ‘Exemplary Inmate’ in Prison
The White House, in announcing the sentence commutation, praised Johnson for accepting responsibility and called her a “model prisoner.”
“Ms. Johnson has accepted responsibility for her past behavior and has been a model prisoner over the past two decades,” The White House wrote in a statement. “Despite receiving a life sentence, Alice worked hard to rehabilitate herself in prison and act as a mentor to her fellow inmates. Her Warden, Case Manager, and Vocational Training Instructor have all written letters in support of her clemency.”
The White House quoted the Warden, Arcala Washington-Adduci, as saying, “since Ms. Johnson’s) arrival at this institution, she has exhibited outstanding and exemplary work ethic. She is considered to be a model inmate who is willing to go above and beyond in all work tasks” and added, “While this administration will always be very tough on crime, it believes that those who have paid their debt to society and worked hard to better themselves while in prison deserve a second chance.”
Johnson’s prison case manager submitted an overview to the U.S. Department of Justice in 2016 calling Johnson an “exemplary inmate” who “has been an instrumental asset for the unit. She has a positive attitude and is always willing to help out when needed.” Among other things, she maintained “clear conduct her entire incarceration.” She coordinates her unit’s Christmas decorations, was selected as a mentor, and shows “the highest caliber of work ethics and is a great team player who helps in all areas.” You can read the case manager’s letter, as well as other letters in support of Johnson below:
Federal court records show that Alice Johnson has indeed presented a lot of evidence for her rehabilitation over the years, including from a prison case manager who described her in positive terms. She has spoken out extensively in the media about her plight, which she has compared to a death sentence. In a video interview posted by Mic.com, Alice Johnson said of her life prison term: “It’s like an unexecuted sentence of death.”
She described the toll that her lengthy incarceration has had on her family. “One of my family members told me one time, and I’ll never forget this, that coming to visit me in prison is like visiting a gravesite,” she said in the video. “They said they can see the site where my body lay but they can never take me home again.”
Johnson did not have the opportunity for parole because she is incarcerated in the federal system and received a life sentence. According to Mic, she is one of more than 3,200 people serving life without parole sentences for a nonviolent offense in the federal system, 65 percent of whom are black and most of whom are drug offenders. Those figures came from a 2013 report by the American Civil Liberties Union, which you can read here. You can read the original indictment in Alice Johnson’s case here:
In the video, Alice Johnson described how she was in management for 10 years but lost her job and “struggled financially.” She felt like a failure and “out of desperation” she “made one of the worst decisions of my life. I became involved in a drug conspiracy,” she says.
3. Alice Johnson Once Worked at Fed Ex But Lost Her Job After a Family Tragedy & Gambling Addiction
The Mic article is more specific about what led to Johnson’s bad choices, reporting, “She lost her job at FedEx due to a gambling addiction, her son was killed in a motorcycle accident and her marriage ended in divorce.” Alice Johnson was convicted in Memphis, Tennessee. The sentencing dates back to 1996.
She is a mother to five children. Johnson wrote a lengthy article for CNN. In it, she explained, “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.”
She added, “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.”
In the letter to CNN, Johnson concluded, “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.”
More than 200,000 people have signed the Change.org petition on Alice Johnson’s behalf.
Tretessa Johnson, Alice’s daughter, started the petition, which reads, “My mother, Alice Marie Johnson is a 62-year-old grandmother serving life without parole for a first time nonviolent drug offense. She has been in prison 21 years and will die there unless President Trump grants her clemency.”
The petition says that Alice Johnson has been a model inmate. “My mother has accepted full responsibility for her actions and used that experience to better her life and the lives of others.”
Tretessa says her mother has become an ordained minister while behind bars and has written plays.
“Since being incarcerated she has been a model prisoner who mentors women and has become an ordained minister,” the petition says. “She has also written, directed, and produced several plays and writings for conferences outside of prison walls, choreographed dance teams, and completed many classes and certifications.”
4. Alice Johnson Says She Wants to Help Other Inmates
In an opinion piece in USA Today, Alice Johnson wrote, “I am thankful for the second chance I was given. But I know that there are many other incarcerated people who also deserve a second chance. I want to use my freedom to advocate on their behalf.”
You can read the full opinion piece here.
What did Alice Johnson do? According to Alice Johnson’s daughter, her mother’s role in the conspiracy was through the telephone. “My family’s life changed forever when my she was sentenced to life in federal prison,” she wrote on Change.org. “She was one of thousands of first time, nonviolent offenders who were given long mandatory prison terms.”
Tretessa explained some of the details of the offense, writing, “She had lost her job and became a telephone mule passing messages between her coconspirators.”
The Change.org petition quotes Alice Johnson as saying, “I couldn’t find a job fast enough to take care of my family. I felt like a failure. I went to a complete panic and out of desperation I made one of the worst decisions of my life to make some quick money. I became involved in a drug conspiracy.”
According to the indictment, the drug conspiracy, which include many people other than Johnson, involved a scheme to transport cocaine from Texas to Tennessee and elsewhere.
Some of the conspirators met at Alice Johnson’s house, the indictment says, adding that Alice rented an apartment in her daughter’s name. The indictment says she also delivered large sums of money as payment for the cocaine. One 1992 meeting between Johnson and other conspirators occurred at a Memphis mall, where they discussed cocaine transactions.
In some instances, other conspirators placed the money and cocaine in “tar buckets” for transportation. In one instance, they loaded a station wagon with cocaine. Some of the other conspirators also loaded the station wagon with $1.5 million in cash. In one instance, Alice Johnson was accused of instructing another conspirator to deliver the cocaine, the indictment says.
5. A Federal Judge Called Johnson ‘the Quintessential Entrepreneur’ During Sentencing & the Operation Was Tied to Colombian Drug Dealers
The Associated Press article at the time of Johnson’s sentencing is headlined, “Memphis drug dealer gets life in prison.” The story reports that Johnson, then 41, was sentenced to life in prison for “leading a multimillion-dollar drug ring that dealt in tons of cocaine from 1991-94.”
U.S. District Judge Julia Gibbons sentenced Johnson. The story reports that Gibbs called Johnson “the quintessential entrepreneur” in the sentencing hearing, decrying the impact that 2,000-3,000 kilograms of cocaine had on the community. The story reported that the Memphis drug conspiracy was affiliated with Colombian drug dealers.
Alice Johnson has a large family and is a great-grandmother. “My mom’s desire upon release is to assist the community with the needs of ex-offenders to help reduce recidivism. Alice is the mother of 4 children and has 6 grandchildren and 1 great grandchild,” says her daughter in the Change.org petition.
“It serves no purpose or benefit to society to have her locked up for life. Her large and loving immediate and extended family and friends would welcome her return.”