As my plane taxied on the runway in Birmingham, Alabama, I looked out of the window at the seemingly peaceful scene of lush greenery and flowers in bloom. My thoughts were tempered by the unrest taking place in our nation after the senseless murder of George Floyd by a white police officer. My thoughts were also of the women who I left behind when I was granted clemency on June 6, 2018. Women who over the almost 22 years I was in federal prison, had become my “prison family”.
Now two years later, I’m returning to Alabama not in ankle shackles, handcuffs and a belly chain, but as a free woman on a commercial flight and not “Con-air”. I wonder how my fellow free passengers would feel if they knew they were traveling with a woman who was now labeled as an ex-felon?
I was sentenced to life plus twenty-five years for my role in a nonviolent drug conspiracy. It was my first offense of any kind. I was told that the only way I would ever rejoin my family would be as a corpse. Most folks automatically think that if a person is serving a life sentence that they must have committed a heinous crime.
But I’m not unique.
A report by the ACLU found that there were over 3,000 people in federal prison in 2013 serving a life sentence for a nonviolent crime with an alarming and disproportionate 65% of them being African Americans!
It’s still too painful for me to watch the full video of George Floyd’s murder. I’m a daughter of Jim Crow Mississippi. I was born in 1955 the same year that Emmett Till’s body was put on display for the world to see after he was murdered in Mississippi and the same year that Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus in Alabama. Blatant racism was a part of my daily life. I watched both of my parents march in protests during the Civil Rights Movement and I experienced as a teenager the pain of our leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr’s assassination just miles from where I lived.
Those turbulent times taught me how to fight for change. I made a promise the day I left prison that I was going to fight for the women and men who have been caught up in an unjust criminal justice system.
The world watched me run across that road in Alabama into the arms of my family two years ago. But what they may not know is that I’ve been running ever since – not for politics, but for people. My release put a face on the urgent need for criminal justice reform.
I’ve been effective in helping three women who I served time with gain their freedom through clemency and I continue to lift up the names of many other men and women who are just as deserving. There is much work to be done in many areas of criminal justice reform and I’m up for the challenge – and I’m ALL IN.
My faith has taught me to hold on to hope and never give up. It has taught me how to persevere through the darkest of times and how to trust God even when the pain seems too much to bear.
Alice Marie Johnson is the author of After Life: My Journey from Incarceration to Freedom.