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Alice Marie Johnson, 68: Keep Looking Ahead

Alice Marie Johnson spent 22 years in prison, due to a life sentence that made headlines for its severity, and got through it with optimism, community and continued learning. Now free, she is embracing life every day, being a voice for the voiceless, and working tirelessly for positive change.

Alice Marie Johnson made headlines for a harsh life sentence in 1996, convicted for nonviolent drug offenses. Her case was criticized for its severity and fueled the call for criminal justice reform, backed by advocates like Kim Kardashian. Granted clemency by Trump, Johnson’s story epitomizes the push for a fairer system, shedding light on sentencing issues. Her memoir, After Life: My Journey from Incarceration to Freedom, dives into her experiences and the road to redemption post-release, as she now champions reform efforts for others facing similar challenges. We caught up with her from her home near Memphis.

How old are you?
I’m 68.

Are you married? Do you have children?
I’m single. I have four grown children, seven grandchildren, and four great-grandchildren.

Where do you live?
Olive Branch, Mississippi, is my hometown outside Memphis, Tennessee. This lovely town was once a secret but, today, it’s one of the top 100 places in the US to live. Many reside here for the peace AND solitude. My daughter is 7 minutes away. Two sisters live 6 and 12 minutes apart.

Tell us about your criminal justice experience.
A federal court found me guilty of attempted possession in 1996. This was my first time in trouble. I lived a normal life and married my high school love. Our marriage lasted 19 years. We had five kids. 

I went to secretarial college in my senior year and was proficient at typing and office work. Beyond that, I also had good people abilities. I was promoted swiftly at FedEx. I started in a secretarial pool and quickly advanced to computer operations management.

My life fell apart after I got divorced after 19 years of marriage and 10 years with FedEx. I was a mother, manager, and wife. 

“Because it made no sense, I prayed to God for meaning”

What was your role in the crime?
You could call me a telephone mule, not a drug dealer. Right. My date was a professional gambler, and I lost my job after lending him money he didn’t pay back.

I didn’t know anything about drugs. The offer came at a bad period in my life: divorce, job loss and house, and I was about to declare bankruptcy. I was forced to make a terrible decision despite knowing it was wrong.

I’m sentenced to life + 25 years. I couldn’t believe it because I’d never gotten in trouble. I learned about mandatory minimums and how unjust the judicial system is, while participating. 

How did you cope?
Because it made no sense, I prayed to God for meaning. Show me why. Why am I here? This wheelchair-bound woman was one of the first people  I met when I struck government ground in Dublin, California. 

She told me, God knows where you’re planted, and God is with me and he knows where I am. 

What personal tactics or coping mechanisms have you developed during this major, catastrophic life transition?
This is my new normal and women’s community. Many of them were spiritually and mentally worse off than I was because I had hope and hadn’t given up. Since you must have self-talk, I told myself I wanted to live fully. That I’m alive and that life remains in me. Other days will arrive, so I’ll make the most of where I am.

I trained prisoners and taught them computers and typing and found that one group of women was excluded: those with long sentences like me. Why can’t they take these classes? How do you advise a woman to give up? How do you advise a woman to ignore her future? I fought it and won.

“How do you advise a woman to ignore her future? I fought it and won”

What did you learn in prison?
I was writing and composing epic plays. I choreographed dances, choruses, and productions. During my time there, I respected the women.

Many considered me their mama; even the staff. I never got in trouble in prison, so what they let me do was amazing. My case for clemency and criminal justice reform was discussed at schools like Yale and NYU.

MIC, an online media outlet and newscaster, saw my statements on Google and YouTube. they invited me to do a video op-ed in prison, which went viral.

Kim Kardashian saw it and retweeted it. I had no idea who she was, but her attorney asked me to hire her and freed me from jail. 

I know I touched many lives. On my last day in prison, I promised the women I would never forget them. Never would I stop fighting for them. After rushing over that road into my family’s arms on day one, I kept running for change.

Talk about coming home.
When I got home after 22 years, I was one of four women from around the world chosen as Women’s Rights Defenders, for my prison work. As a UN Women’s Rights Defender, my photos are still up. 

“I returned to release as many as I could who were confined and didn’t have a face or voice”

22 years. Wow.
I wasn’t comfortable with my independence, so they nicknamed me the modern Harriet Tubman. After that, I returned to release as many as I could who were confined and didn’t have a face or voice.

I fought for legal reform. Over 3000 people have been reunited with their families and have the lowest recidivism rate of any jail release. I continue to help individuals. Because everyone can do good, I founded Taking Action for Good.

I’ve been tasking individuals nationwide to join me. Clemencies, compassionate releases, and pardons are my priority. I’m starting a new chapter of my work. My first stop after prison was a juvenile detention center, so I’m doing this.

Being a voice for the voiceless and advocating for their freedom requires a different mindset, so we’re launching context-informed prevention strategies for our youth to help them avoid juvenile detention.

A community-based initiative is needed. We have a holistic strategy, and it’s unnecessary to reinvent the wheel. Learn from those who’ve succeeded. We’re preparing to launch this phase in 2024. However, fundraising has been one of my hardest parts because we’re trained not to ask for anything in the South.

Alice Marie Johnson’s book, “After Life.”

Asking for help is important.
Yes, because It’s not simply my mission. My effort goes beyond helping. Giving a voice goes beyond helping young people in a humanitarian crisis. Mass imprisonment. There seems to be no end.

But after seeing a measure pass, I’m optimistic. 

You’re doing so much for the greater good, but what surprised you personally as you transitioned out of prison?
When I went to prison, there was no internet and no smartphones. FaceTime was absent. I observed people texting and that we are living in a divided world. 

At 65, I started a foundation that has shaken the nation and met governors, presidents, and legislators. I’ve embraced desperate folks in the street.

I’m out here meeting individuals from both sides of the aisle with various faces and opinions. We want the same thing. We love our family and want a good life. I’m 68. I want to finish strong and cherish my family. I want to be present in their lives and let others my age or close to it realize that life continues beyond another birthday.

“At 65, I started a foundation that has shaken the nation and met governors, presidents, and legislators”

As I looked at your home, I was struck by how beautiful, elegant, and warm it is.
Thank you. Concrete was once my daily environment. I was lucky to buy it at a low-interest rate. Excellent credit was important after prison. I started developing credit immediately because I didn’t want anyone to look over my shoulder. No co-signer ever. I took advantage of a less-than-3% interest rate when it was low.

I wanted a family-friendly home. My house is a gathering point for my many siblings and extended family, and I want them to feel comfortable. 

How have your objectives and values changed since returning home from prison?
I appreciate aging as a free woman. Everything changed because I was meant to die in prison. I’m grateful for every day I wake up. Many people live in mental prisons of their own design. They isolate.

How has that informed your views on aging?
I’m okay with staring at a 68-year-old woman’s face. That suits me. I learned to stop looking back in prison, which benefited me. Well, we keep looking ahead. We anticipate. Looking ahead, we understand life. We live, we alter that, we gaze ahead. It’s understood. 

The lessons I’ve learned have made my life richer. I glance at my ceiling every morning, grateful I’m not gazing at a bunk bed.

The laundry room in my house is bigger than my jail cell. I don’t take anything for granted, especially family. We assume our youth will always be with us if we’ve never lost anything.

As youth passes, some people give up and grieve over how they used to be or appear instead of living in the present. This may be your best life. I am living my best life now.

“This may be your best life. I am living my best life now”

Take us through your day.
I thank God every day for waking me up. I pray and read in the morning. I’ll do a devotional, but I tend not to eat early. 

My sister, who works with me, keeps me organized.  I’m usually reading a stack of prisoner letters, interviewing with someone like you, looking at foundation needs, or calling my kids.

It must be so challenging to readjust to life.
My experience was like diving down in a submarine for 20 years and coming up a lane to find everything different. This can be traumatic because everything seems odd, and people presume things you don’t know. 

What do you do for fun?
I’m so close to my family that family time is my favorite. Just going to the gym is exciting for me. 

I enjoy strolling, reflecting, and breathing fresh air. It’s hard to describe how fantastic it feels to open a door and step outside. 

You could have been resentful, disenfranchised, and angry after prison.
I decided in prison to forgive those who had lied to me. I lost everything, including my ex-husband, because I wanted to be a mother and raise our kids together. Yes, I forgive everyone because my unforgiveness did not affect them.

I did it intentionally. Made a list. I’d call their names to avoid just looking at my prayer list. I named them to bless them, wonderful God. I’m not trying to be a saint, right? That healed me. I had to do that for myself since it didn’t affect others.

That released me. My heart was open. So I didn’t come out angry.

“I want to leave a legacy of never giving up because it’s never too late”

What kind of music do you listen to?
Gospel music is my passion. Sometimes, I listen to classic R&B.

I like blues. Gladys Knight, The Supremes and The Temptations. Dancing is one of my favorite pastimes. I’ve been having so much fun learning new line dances.

And it turns out, I still got it.

You sure do. What are your non-negotiables?
Whoever is true is my life constant. No negotiation on what I must say. Anything that seems shady to me is a wrap. I won’t negotiate with any corporation that seems wrong due to conspiracy. To go solo and get along.

Your feelings will be respected. I’ll honor those, but not negotiable. If somebody wants me to sacrifice who I am to be accepted by you, I have numerous non-negotiables. All that is to say, I have buddies at different levels.

I have my tight group; my outer circle may be farther away. I also have business associates. There’s no negotiating that everyone has the same spot. My space.

What legacy do you want to leave during your career?
I want to be best known as an ordinary person who can do remarkable things.

I want to leave a legacy of never giving up because it’s never too late.

Connect with Alice:
Alice’s book: After Life: My Journey from Incarceration to Freedom
Instagram
X, Formerly Twitter
Taking Action For Good

See medical disclaimer below. ↓

7 COMMENTS

  1. What an amazing story about an extraordinary women. So very inspiring and uplifting- God is good! Thank you deeply for sharing your story and I would love to follow up and hear more about this beautiful human being Alice!

  2. Such an inspiring life! You are a positive-minded survivor. Good for you! Some of us take breathing fresh air and walking outside for granted … we should be grateful for every day we have, and for every breath for take. Thanks so much for sharing your story!

  3. I think this is a great story. I wish that the writer of the article would have done two things differently. Put “former President” in front of “Trump” and actually govern a bit more credit to President Trump for pardoning her. Like him or not, he deserves credit where credit is due.

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The ideas expressed here are solely the opinions of the author and are not researched or verified by AGEIST LLC, or anyone associated with AGEIST LLC. This material should not be construed as medical advice or recommendation, it is for informational use only. We encourage all readers to discuss with your qualified practitioners the relevance of the application of any of these ideas to your life. The recommendations contained herein are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease. You should always consult your physician or other qualified health provider before starting any new treatment or stopping any treatment that has been prescribed for you by your physician or other qualified health provider. Please call your doctor or 911 immediately if you think you may have a medical or psychiatric emergency.

AUTHOR

Sheri Radel Rosenberghttps://unapologeticstyle.substack.com/
Sheri Radel Rosenberg is a Philly-born, Brooklyn-based writer who explores style, beauty, culture, and midlife with wit, warmth, and wisdom. Her story includes successful forays in the worlds of trend forecasting, ad agency photo production, ghostwriting, and strategic messaging development for fashion and beauty brands - all while amassing a slip dress collection that would make any Gen Xer proud. At the dawn of social media, Sheri launched her personal blog–which combines her passion for writing with her style obsession–and she hasn’t looked back. As Style Editor for the AGEIST, she’s inspired by the styles of the 70s and the 90s, along with all the beautiful people she sees daily in NYC.

 

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