By Karanja A. Ajanaku, The New Tri-State Defender
After 21 years in federal prison, Alice Marie Johnson sprinted across a roadway near where she had been locked up. Waiting were family, friends and social justice warriors.
Nearly a year later, many of those same people (and many others) were in Memphis as Johnson danced – literally – onto a stage in a ballroom at The Peabody Hotel.
Johnson garnered national attention when reality star and business mogul Kim Kardashian West became an advocate for her freedom. On June 6, 2018, President Donald Trump granted her clemency. She had been serving a mandatory life sentence without parole for her involvement in a nonviolent drug case.
It was first and only conviction.
Now an author, Johnson has completed her memoir, “After Life: My Journey from Incarceration to Freedom.” A movie is in the making.
Johnson told her story at the National Civil Rights Museum last Monday. The gathering a few days before at The Peabody was an all-out family – extended family – celebration. As it wrapped up, Johnson talked of her late parents, Raymond and Sallie Mae Boggan.
“My parents, when things were going wrong, one thing we didn’t do – we never lost our praise,” she said. “I dedicated my memoir to them. I hope you will get the book and read – not just my story – but it’s also their story. It’s also my sisters and brothers’ story, my children’s story. Stories of the women and men left behind (in prison). People who have (traveled) on this journey with me.”
Calling her family members “incredible,” Johnson said they stood beside her throughout the ordeal. Her oldest daughter, Tretessa, served as surrogate mother to Johnson’s children.
“They all bonded together and kept our family unit together,” Johnson said. “Without that happening, I just don’t know if I personally would have been able to carry on the way I was able to. It was that assurance of knowing that my family was OK; that they had bonded in love and just looked after each other.”
Tretessa heaped praise on those who supported her family while her mother was in prison.
“When she went to prison, we all went there with her,” she said. “Behind the headlines that you see and all of the press, (prior to) that there was a lot of disappointment, a lot of rejection. A lot of getting our hopes up only to be dashed again.
After Donald Trump was elected president, Tretessa said some told her there was no way he would free her mother.
“But what those people didn’t know (was) that God doesn’t care about odds. To witness what happened to her is really witnessing a miracle.”
Kardashian West could not make the trip and a video she prepared malfunctioned. A few minutes later, she was on the phone with Johnson, who shared the exchange.
It was one year to the day that Kardashian West had pitched for Johnson’s freedom during a meeting with President Trump in the White House.
Attorney Mike Scholl of Memphis and Brittany Barnett were part of the “Dream Team” of lawyers, along with Jennifer Turner and Shawn Holley, that Johnson in her book wrote “joined forces to rescue me from prison.”
Reflecting, Scholl said, “It just pained me to see such an incredible person such as Alice be locked away in a cage for something like this. It was nonviolent offense…a woman who got accused of a drug conspiracy, where she never saw any drugs, never possessed any drugs, never held any drugs and was sentenced to life in prison because of (the) archaic laws of our nation. I think it’s just a shame.”
Johnson was developed as a voice for people in similar circumstances, Scholl said.
“The reason I think this was her purpose in life is because if you knew all the things that had to occur, and all the things that had to happen for her to be with us tonight, you would be amazed.”
Barnett, said Scholl, had gotten 17 people out of prison already this year. Barnett said she was a bright-eyed law student representing a friend of Johnson’s, when she met Johnson 10-plus years ago.
“As a daughter of an incarcerated mother myself, one of my visions to change the world was to create a program in women’s prison to sustain a relationship between women in prison and their daughters.”
After securing a meeting with Chaplain Robert Danage in Fort Worth, Texas at the Federal Medical Center, Carswell prison and gaining his support, Barnett was introduced to “a woman in prison who wrote plays and was putting on a grand production. …”
Barnett said Johnson never gave up in the face of multiple rejections.
“It takes a special kind of grace and dignity to carry a life without parole sentence. …Thank you for continuing to rise up and thanks for continuing to lift us with you.”
Mayor Jim Strickland welcomed Johnson home.
“We need to use tonight as inspiration to make sure the right thing happens from here on forth,” said Strickland. “We’re all humans …not one of us is perfect. …But life is about forgiveness, second chances and lending a helping hand to those who need it when and where you can.
“Reducing recidivism and helping people get back on their feet has been a priority and passion of ours at City Hall since we took office. And it’s cases like Alice’s that serve as constant reminder that we have to take a hard look at our criminal justice system, especially when it comes to nonviolent offenders.”
Mark Holden, senior vice president of Koch Industries and one of Johnson’s social justice associates, told the crowd that the problem is a “two-tiered system” where the rich and guilty get much better treatment than the poor and innocent. …And if you don’t have resources, you are going to get run over.”
What can be done to make it better?
“What we’ve seen the last 10 to 15 years in criminal justice reform is phenomenal but it’s not happening fast enough,” Holden said.
“What we did in the 80s and 90s…being over-punitive and lock people up and throw away the key, that went really fast. We’re still trying to peel that back. So we’ve got a lot of work to do.”