Alice Marie Johnson: "I was supposed to draw my last dying breath in prison"

Salon talks to the woman whose release Kim Kardashian West helped secure about drug laws, justice and more

By D. Watkins

Editor at Large

Published May 25, 2019 5:30PM (EDT)

D Watkins and Alice Marie Johnson (Salon Talks)
D Watkins and Alice Marie Johnson (Salon Talks)

Activists are fighters. They’re humble warriors and unsung heroes who probably pack their own quinoa salads in reusable containers and then work day in and day out, tirelessly—even risking their lives at times—to make the world a better place for all of us.

The truth is though, activists can be as brilliant and complex, or as petty and disgusting as any other humans. But their increased visibility over the past few years has led to young people with dreams of making change being groomed by clout-chasers who crave power, recognition, fame over anything else — even positive change.

 I run into people like that all the time but I mind my business, as I have my own community goals. When they corner me and demand my support, I always shift the conversation to identifying a plan, including results and receipts. No one knows the importance of that more than Alice Marie Johnson, who sat down with me on “Salon Talks” this week to discuss her new book,  "After Life: My Journey from Incarceration to Freedom."

Johnson was a wife, mother, and FedEx employee who fell on some hard times back in the early ‘90s. FedEx fired her and she ended up participating in a drug ring, where her only job was to set up transactions over the phone. Johnson was caught and offered three to five years in a minimum-security prison camp. Her lawyer said the case was weak (which it was) and instructed her to fight.

She fought, and even though the government had no real witnesses or evidence, Johnson was sentenced to life in prison. For years activists talked about, tweeted and referenced Johnson’s case. They helped make it popular, but not enough to have her sentence overturned. Soon, reality star and media mogul Kim Kardashian West caught wind of Johnson’s story on Twitter, hired her a new lawyer and ultimately was the driving force in getting President Donald Trump to commute her sentence.

Kardashian West’s actions were revolutionary even though many traditional activists take her as a joke in their world because she has reality TV fame, drives a Range Rover, and doesn’t have to pack her own quinoa salad in a reusable container.

I’d ask those same activists about the results, and to talk about how beautiful it is that Johnson gets to be free. They probably wouldn’t have much to say about her path to freedom, but I do. People like Kardashian West are extremely important because they have the power to approach people like Donald Trump and get him to do things like grant Johnson her freedom. And as far as the on-the-ground activists, they are important too, because if they didn’t march, preach, and push for Johnson’s story to go mainstream, then it may have never made it to a person like Kardashian West, who has a platform strong enough to deliver freedom.

Wars are fought on multiple fronts and we need love from everybody–– the mogul, the grassroots activist, and yes, even the clout chaser. Perfect allies don’t exist.

Watch my “Salon Talks” episode with Johnson here, or read the Q&A of the conversation below, to hear about her newfound freedom, the problems with the criminal justice system and how she is dedicating her life to making change and fighting for those on the inside.

My fiancée, who is a lawyer, and I, we spent the week studying the book and having deep conversations about it. You have a beautiful journey. As all of us who've been following the story know, you've recently been released from prison. What was the first thing you did as soon as you walked out?

As soon as I walked out, of course, you saw me running into the arms of my family. When I arrived home, where a big tribe of my family was waiting on me, they had prepared a beautiful, beautiful, wonderful, delicious dinner for me.

The best meal you've ever had?

The best meal I've ever had. It seemed like every flavor was intensified. The best thing, one of the best things, was getting a plate, and not being served off of a tray. Just simple stuff. Picking up a fork—a real fork, not a plastic fork.

I was taking my time eating and just drinking my family in. We'd always planned that I'd go to my brother's house and you probably saw in the book, the first thing I did when I arrived at my brother's house was open the refrigerator. I hadn't been allowed to open the refrigerator in a house for almost 22 years. When I saw that big bed, wow. That bed was the most marvelous thing of all, not being in a twin bed. Sleeping on a comfortable mattress. I jumped on that bed and I was kicking my legs like a little child rolling over in the bed. It felt good to get a good night's sleep without a book over my head.

We know that Kim Kardashian West didn't just call you up one day and say, hey, let Alice out. We know there was a process that led up to that, her getting involved and your eventual release. Can you walk us through that?

I did a video for and that video went viral on the first day. Someone who Kim follows tweeted it out to her. She said that she had not been on her phone in days and when she turned her phone on, my face popped up. From the time she started listening to my story, and it was under four minutes, that short video was the catalyst for what took place with me. She tweeted out after hearing my story, [saying that] this is so unfair.

But one thing that I want to say, and I have to say this, and give Kim her props on this. Many, many people saw that video, in fact, it was viewed by about 10 million people, but Kim didn't just say that this is so unfair. She took action. She contacted her attorney. They put together a legal team. She put her money in it. She put her time in it. She put her heart into my case.

She's a revolutionary in her own right, now, because of fighting like that for you.

Yes, she is.

You also have a history of being a revolutionary and I imagine you probably got that from your mom. Your mom was in the NAACP. Talk about how began working at FedEx and the grievance you fought with them and how you helped change that company.

I started with FedEx and I was in a department, and I saw that you had opportunities to move up in this department. I saw a pattern of discrimination against women, against people of color like myself. We were not in line the way that others were for those promotions, even though our work was at the better standards. We had to work hard. We had to work even harder.

I had a very good record. I was really doing it. I was collecting, because I was in revenue recovery, I was top of the charts, and every time I'd apply for the next level of promotion, I was turned down. I started researching because it didn't make any sense. People who had less, not as good records, as the women and the people of color, they were being promoted. So I fought for them and I won. In fairness to them, they listened to me. They saw that what I presented to them was absolutely correct.

What did that victory feel like?

It felt so good, but as a child I used to listen to my mother and the things that she talked about and her involvement in the civil rights movement, and I think that's where those seeds were planted in me of activism for myself. And that's not to sit back and just let things take place that you know are wrong, to do something.

Two of the big themes in the book that keep sticking out to me were your relationships with men, and faith, and the different ways it kept recurring in your life as this driving force to push you in the right direction. You knew when you were doing something that wasn't right, and you identified that.


Your book is not a "woe is me" story. This is a real story. I'm a real person who had real struggles. Talk about your relationships with men and then try to bridge that with faith.

I got married at 15 years old. I was a pregnant teenage mother and bride. That relationship was not a very good relationship. Both me and my husband were way too young. He was older than me, but we still were too young.

You were kids.

Yeah, we were kids. But having grown up with parents who loved each other so much, they were married 64 years. I mean, that's how long they would have been married. They would have been married longer than that if they were still alive. But I thought that's what a relationship looked like, and I think I kept trying to find someone who would treat me the way that my father treated my mother. That never happened. I didn't have a good marriage, a stable marriage, but I still wanted a strong family and stability for my children because that's how I grew up. That didn't happen.

There’s something about when you are not so much physically abused, but you go through what I know now is mental abuse, that can be much worse than the physical because the physical scars heal. But when someone tells you bad things about yourself, and you try to prove yourself, I just wanted to be accepted, I think, and be validated by a man. By someone, since I didn't get that from my husband. I made bad decisions in my relationship, and not having that time of how girls mature and they date and they experience life and experience relationships, I didn't have that, so I did make some bad choices in my life.

And that's what led to you eventually becoming incarcerated.

Yes, it did. I want to make this clear: I'm not blaming the person that I was involved with in this relationship because I still had the ability to say no, but it was at a bad time in my life. I'd lost my job. I had bills coming in that were driving me crazy. I got another job eventually as a factory worker, but by the time that I did get the job, I'm divorced now. I've got five children. I'm getting zero support from my ex-husband. I've got things that are going on in my life that are out of control.

All of a sudden, the control that I felt that I had of my life was just stripped. I don't know what to do, and when an offer came for me to become involved in a drug conspiracy, I really didn't know what that looked like. Thinking back on that, I don't even recognize myself that I would even nod my head. I moved my lips to say OK, I'll pass messages, I'll be a telephone mule in this.

One thing I think that people really need to understand is what your role was versus what the system tried to say your role was. I think people get it twisted. We have a person like you, a God-fearing woman with a beautiful soul caught up in a situation. We've all been caught up in situations before, but then when you get to court, you’re painted as this person who has done all of these things that are beyond all of our imaginations.

That whole thing is crazy. It's crazy how the system will, I can almost say, they write a fairy tale, almost, about you. If you don't agree to cooperate, if you don't plead guilty, I think it's almost like notches in the belt: We brought the big fish in.

As I said in my book, if I was a queen-pin in this operation, I was the worst one that I've ever heard of. I didn't have a paid-for house. I didn't have a paid-for car. My house payment was $900 a month, and a lot of times I struggled to even pay that. Others, they had cars seized, they couldn't even get a bond. I was on bond for two years. They could not even get a bond and they knew, but the picture is painted as some huge drug operation. That just was not true.

Even the estimated—they used this word "estimated"—they put that in front, and they come up with a number of what we call "ghost dope.” That's dope, that's drugs that they didn't even have a record of. They didn't seize these drugs. They come up with this money figure.

Potentially, what you're saying is that 800 pounds of ghost dope is sitting on this table right now. [Laughs.]

Oh, yeah, we got ghost dope right here.

The crazy thing is, their main witness in my case, he said that he had brought drugs to my home 20 times. I looked at him and I thought, you don't even know where I live, so I put a map up at my trial of the city.

That blew my mind when you wrote about how he kept going to the map and was like, she's right here, and everyone's laughing, like, no. He's like, I'm sorry, she's right here, and then that's not right either.

By the time he finished, at one point he had taken them over the Mississippi-Arkansas Bridge. I lived in a totally different direction, D. It was absolutely ridiculous, but this is their star witness, and this is where they mainly get the drugs attributed to myself.

But how did people see something so bad and so phony and still come up with the conclusion and your eventual sentencing?

It's what is called conspiracy. In conspiracy, whatever takes place with one person in this conspiracy, you're attributed for every single act.

If they can clearly say that he doesn't know what he's talking about, how can they look at you and say "guilty"? That's crazy.

The jury was laughing. In fact, all of this is in the transcripts. This is not me making this up. It's in the transcript. The jury was laughing, so the judge had to get order back into the court and at the very end I was convicted by not a 12-person jury, but an 11-person jury on Halloween. They started rushing to get to a decision after a six-week trial because they were told they were going to be sequestered. It seems like they were more interested in getting back home so that their children could trick-or-treat than my very life on the line.

That's crazy.

It's crazy but it's true.

Can you think about your time behind the wall, and how many stories you heard about people who have just been used and misrepresented and taken advantage of by crooked cops, crooked judges, evil prosecutors in a system that we all pay into with our own tax money?

It's crazy. I did do wrong. I'm not trying to say that I went to prison because I was a Sunday school teacher, but it did not warrant that kind of time. A life without parole, plus 25 years for being an information mule. A telephone mule is what it's called.

So you're not touching nothing, you're not going out and doing anything physical with your hands. You're just on the phone.

I don't have any boats, planes, or anything else. I'm on the phone. But even the people involved in my case who went to trial, that amount of drugs just did not exist and the ones who ended up doing time for this, it was unfair to them also. I'm not the only victim of my case. Most of the time the people that I was in prison with, they took pleas because they're terrified.

They're terrified.


The closure rate is like 90-some percent.

Most of the people take a plea.

They almost never lose.

They don’t because of this conspiracy theory and how easy it is to be convicted of a conspiracy, so they're afraid to go to trial.

Easy if you're black.

Oh for sure, much easier if you're black.

You are not taking your release lightly. You've become an advocate. You've become a person who has been fighting to change these systems. Can you talk about that work?

Ever since I came home, I have been speaking on different platforms. I've been trying to educate the public about how many other people are just like me. My case is not unique. There are many others who deserve the same second chance that I was given, so I don't want them to look at this as I'm an oddity. I'm someone who's just caught up. Many people are caught up in this. I call it not the justice system, but the injustice system. There are many who are caught up in this system.

I'm not saying that people who work—our judges, our prosecutors—I'm not saying this is a dirty cop thing. I'm saying that the laws are wrong. That something has to change, and my coming out has put a face on the need for criminal justice reform. It's impacted people. When they hear my story, when they see my face, families, there are too many families that have other family members. Like you, yourself, D., you say you have a close friend who's serving a long sentence.

Yes, my best friend Tamar Robinson's doing 27 years for non-violent crimes. It's crazy.

How do [they] sleep at night? People claim that [they’re] making our streets safer. How are [they] making the streets safer? For me, I was supposed to draw my last dying breath in prison. I didn't pose a risk to society. Of course, I had a debt to pay for committing a crime, but should it have been life? Absolutely not. The time did not fit the crime.

You have too many people who are in the same situation and if the eyes are not open to the public, it's going to continue the same. Unless something changes, unless more stories like mine are being told, it's not going to change.

Could you do this work if you took the deal of three to five years over trying to go to court and fight it? Do you feel like you would have had the same energy to fight for reform?

I think that I would not have had this level because before I only heard about it, and I didn't understand it. But when you go and sit among the people, I've lived it with them, and now I know. And once you know something is wrong, to turn your back and act as if it's OK, then I'm wrong.

I only say this to you because you're a woman of faith, but it seems like God wouldn't put you through this if you weren’t strong enough to handle it.

I paid it. You know how they say you bought it? I paid for this message. I bought it and I paid for it with 21 years, seven months, and six days of my life. So I won't forget about the people who have been left behind, both women and men. I won't stop fighting. I won't, until change takes place. This is a movement, and this movement is not going to stop.

Many politicians have talked about it, and I want to know how you feel about being able to vote while you're incarcerated. You're still citizens.

I truly believe that when you have completed your time, they call us returning citizens, how can you be a returning citizen if you can't even vote? If you say that you're returning, have a good life, that you're an American citizen, yet one of the things that make us citizens is that we can choose government. So how in the world can you not have that?

I think you should be able to vote while you're still inside. I'm going to say this because I went and saw Liza Jessie Peterson's play “A Peculiar Patriot.” She had a section where she talked about how these towns are able to benefit from having incarcerated people because they can add them to their census so they can get more money from the federal government, which we all pay into. So it's like if you're using us, then we should have the ability to be for political representation.

Wow. You know, that's a good thought, D. It's a good point.

It's a good one-woman show. You should check it out.

I'm going to definitely check it out. I definitely 100 percent believe that when you're released from prison, you've done your time, that it's time to really and truly welcome them home and restore their rights.

By D. Watkins

D. Watkins is an Editor at Large for Salon. He is also a writer on the HBO limited series "We Own This City" and a professor at the University of Baltimore. Watkins is the author of the award-winning, New York Times best-selling memoirs “The Beast Side: Living  (and Dying) While Black in America”, "The Cook Up: A Crack Rock Memoir," "Where Tomorrows Aren't Promised: A Memoir of Survival and Hope" as well as "We Speak For Ourselves: How Woke Culture Prohibits Progress." His new books, "Black Boy Smile: A Memoir in Moments," and "The Wire: A Complete Visual History" are out now.

MORE FROM D. Watkins