• In 1996, Alice Marie Johnson was sentenced to life imprisonment for her involvement in a drug trade.
  • After 21 years in prison, Johnson was granted clemency after Kim Kardashian advocated for her freedom.
  • Johnson spoke with Insider reporter Yoonji Han about finding hope in prison and changing the criminal justice system.



This is an as-told-to essay based on a conversation with Alice Marie Johnson, who was sentenced to life imprisonment in 1996 for her involvement in a drug-trafficking organization. She was released from prison in 2018 and is now a criminal justice reform advocate. The essay has been edited for length and clarity.

I was born in Mississippi as one of nine children — eight girls and one boy, with my brother right smack in the middle. My parents worked on someone else’s place: My father was a sharecropper and worked in the dairy barn, and my mother was an outstanding cook.

We picked cotton, so I grew up with a strong work ethic. You don’t have a choice but to have a strong work ethic when work is part of your life.

We escaped the sharecropping lifestyle when I was almost 6 years old. I use the word “escape” because that’s really what it took for us to get out of it. Every year when a crop came in, the landowners would tell us there was no money left over, even if it was a good year. My parents had to secretly buy a prefabricated home — one of those Jim Walter homes — in Olive Branch and sneak over at night to prepare it.



One day, in the middle of the night, they woke me up, covered my mouth because I talked a lot, and pushed the car down the road until we could escape to our new home.

We moved into a new house with a whole new beginning. My parents knew that the only way to escape poverty was through education. My father got his first factory job. My mother started cooking at country clubs and for different organizations, and eventually opened her own restaurant that put all of my siblings through college.

But for me, things didn’t turn out that way because I got pregnant and married young, when I was just 15 years old.

Johnson and her eight siblings.

Courtesy of Alice Marie Johnson

A wrong turn

My husband and I had five children together, and so I never got to do the teenage stuff that most girls do. Even though I was married very young and was in a very tumultuous marriage, I still managed to take secretarial college classes. I couldn’t let my husband know because he’d say, “You should be using that time to be working.”



But I still had strong ambitions, and I knew I had to have something to build upon my own future because my marriage was already going down the drain.

Every job that I got after, I’d always rise up. In fact, I integrated our small town offices. They never had a Black woman work in an office before, but because I had great skills, I was the first one to ever get an office job. Every job that a Black person used to get were factory or domestic jobs. I got a job at FedEx as a secretary and made my way up to a manager role.

But my life totally changed after I got divorced. Even if it was a terrible marriage, I’d been married all my adult life up to that point, and it felt traumatic. My life started going out of control. I ended up meeting a man, who I discovered later was involved in drugs. I’d thought he was a professional gambler. 

That’s how I ended up making the real bad decision to become a telephone mule for a drug trade.



Community members in Aliceville, AL came together on October 16, 2023 at Aliceville First Baptist Church to celebrate Alice Marie Johnson returning to the community five years after her release.

Gina Danals

Sentenced to life

I felt guilty with what I was doing, but I was happy to just put food on the table and pay my utilities. My son was tragically killed in a scooter accident, and I became a zombie at that point. I was grieving, my children were grieving, and I couldn’t even pay for his funeral. So I started passing those messages.

When one of the people who was carrying drugs got busted, he had my phone number. I was 39 years old, and I became officially a part of the drug conspiracy arrest.

They labeled me as the queenpin, but I didn’t have the money they thought I had. My house was a little bit under $100,000, and I was paying notes on a car. But they have to label somebody and the one who goes to trial is going to always be labeled because the others are going to take a plea deal. I didn’t know anything about the criminal justice system or how conspiracy worked.

When I was sentenced to life imprisonment, I was shocked. There was no violence in my case. I never sold or used drugs. The drugs that I was charged for were drugs that were testified to but were never seized.



Finding my voice in prison

When I went to prison, I made myself very educated. I wanted to know how in the world I could receive such a sentence. I made the decision that I was still going to live life and impact my prison community.

An old photo of Johnson with other women at a correctional facility.

Courtesy of Alice Marie Johnson

It was a dark place, but the women became my family. I’d applied for clemency numerous times but was denied. I lost both my parents and my older sister while I was in prison, but I couldn’t go to the funerals. But I’d made a decision to never lose hope. My release date would only be by death, but I believed I would go home.

I started writing plays to get women involved, and I became an advocate for the women in prison. I’d only been in prison one year when I was able to change the education system of our prison: Women with long sentences were not allowed to participate in certain vocational classes that were intended for women who were being released into the world soon, but I fought to get that policy changed.

My argument was: How do you tell a woman not to hope? How do you tell a woman not to prepare for a future?



Kim Kardashian became aware of my issue because I started giving talks from prison. I think when I looked into the camera as though I were talking directly to the audience, my genuineness came through. I wasn’t a stereotype of what a prisoner was. I was a regular woman who’d just become a great-grandmother. I hadn’t even committed the worst crime. Many people told me they felt my heart.

Kim Kardashian West and Johnson at a panel five years after Johnson was released.

Daniel Houghton

A free woman

After serving 21 years in 2018, I was granted clemency and released from prison. I walked out, and it was crazy. It sounded like an earthquake. Every woman on the compound was locked in, but they were beating on the windows and stomping their feet, screaming, “Ms. Alice, don’t forget about us.”

I didn’t show it, but it was so scary. I didn’t know nothing. Here was the internet, FaceTime, and Facebook. I didn’t even know who Kim Kardashian was. I jumped when I got in the car and heard a stranger’s voice — turned out it was Siri giving my daughter directions.

Johnson was released from the Federal Correctional Institution, Aliceville, on June 2018.

Courtesy of Alice Johnson

At first, I had nightmares. I’d wake up and instead of a bunk bed, I’d see a ceiling over my head, and that would calm me down.



But I could never get the image of the women in prison out of my head. I knew I wouldn’t stop fighting for them. As soon as I hit the ground, I hit the ground running. I hadn’t even been at home one weekend before I was traveling, calling for an end to mandatory sentencing and seeking a real change to the criminal justice system.

I didn’t want there to be another Alice Johnson. I was a broken woman when I went in, and I came out free. I was already free before they set me free. I came out a woman who had faced my past and my fears, and I’m ready for what’s next.