It’s nearing dinner time and Alice Johnson is relaxing on a sofa in Arizona, excitedly waiting for her daughter and grandchildren, six-month-old twins, to get home.
She’s already had a busy day. Her morning was spent journaling, FaceTiming with out-of-state family members and planning for the month ahead. In the afternoon, she explored an aquarium with her grandchildren.
“Some might think what I’m doing is boring, but believe me, it is not,” Alice says. “Everyday I wonder, ‘What happened to the day?’ And I’m grateful for that.”
Gratitude comes easy to Alice. Anyone else in her position would likely feel the same way.
Mere months ago, Alice was an inmate at a federal correctional institution in Alabama, where she had been incarcerated for more than two decades after being convicted on a nonviolent drug conspiracy charge. In 1997, she was sentenced to mandatory life without parole—despite the fact that it was her first-ever arrest or conviction.
Alice distinctly remembers being taken into custody on Halloween in 1996. “I felt numb—it was shocking,” she says. “Just hearing it come out of the judge’s mouth, I couldn’t believe it. I felt that only heinous crimes warranted a sentence like that.”
That judge’s fateful decision changed the trajectory of Alice’s life. For the next 21 years, 7 months and 6 days, Alice coped with prison the only way she knew how—by getting busy.
While incarcerated, Alice wrote, choreographed and directed plays; became an ordained minister; earned several trade certifications and comforted the dying in Hospice. She coordinated the nation’s first-ever Special Olympics to be held in a prison, a cause she took up to empower and bring joy to the women with disabilities around her.
“When you get involved in somebody else’s life and you start encouraging them, in the process you encourage yourself,” she says. “I showed women the possibilities of what they can do.”
Alice also spoke in university classrooms via Skype and recorded video op-eds, telling her story in hopes of promoting change within the criminal justice system. It was one of those video op-eds that caught the attention of reality-TV star Kim Kardashian West, who took it upon herself to make Alice’s story known to the public, top lawyers, and President Donald Trump.
On June 6, 2018, Alice was granted clemency by the president. Her ecstatic reunion with her family was seen around the world thanks to the media attention surrounding her release. In the emotional video, Alice bounds across the street and into the arms of awaiting family members.
“It was a feeling I cannot describe,” she says. “I felt like I was floating on air. I was finally able to hug my family.”
Outside prison walls, Alice has continued her work in advocacy—and she is isn’t slowing down.
She’s done interviews on every major TV network, Fox News’ Sean Hannity, The Hill’s Rising news segment and live radio shows. She even appeared on The Today Show alongside Kardashian West. In the exclusive interview with Hoda Kotb, Alice talks about her mission to help others who are serving unjust life sentences due to a broken criminal justice system.
“I can’t stop,” Alice tells Kotb. “I’ve lived it. I’ve walked with them, I’ve cried with them. My life is completely intertwined forever with those who were left behind.”
The response Alice has received from the public, despite admitting to her crime, has been overwhelmingly positive, she says.
“My story was a feel-good story where people could see a family—they connected with me and they know the truth of it,” she says. “I’ve had people tell me they watched 20 times.”
Alice also became a fellow for the Buried Alive Project, which works to eliminate life-without-parole sentences handed down under federal drug law through litigation, legislation, and building awareness. The project was started by Brittany K. Barnett, an attorney and criminal justice reform advocate whose mother was incarcerated. As one its fellows and thought leaders, Alice has been able to amplify the stories of others as well as start writing a book about her own experiences.
In addition to getting published, Alice plans to continue speaking publicly at colleges and influential companies like Google. She dreams of spreading her message of hope and change to children by hosting presentations and skits at schools.
Eventually, Alice wants to go back to prison—this time, to encourage men and women serving life sentences to persevere and live life fully despite their circumstances.
“I want to tell them, ‘They can give you a sentence, but you don’t have to give them your time,’” she says.
Over the years, a lot has shifted in Alice’s life, but one thing has remained constant: Her love for her family. It’s a love that stayed strong throughout her incarceration thanks to frequent phone calls, letters and visits. While locked up, she missed the funerals of both her parents and a sister, to whom she didn’t get to say goodbye.
Now, Alice spends each day making up for lost time, a mission made easier by the presence of her baby grandchildren.
“I missed out on the lives of all my grandchildren,” she says. “It’s like God has given me a new beginning. I’m loving that part.”—Stacy Kennelly Nester