Other than one visit from a brother and a sister, Alice Marie Johnson didn’t see any of her family members, including her children, for years after being incarcerated in a federal prison 1,500 miles from her Memphis home.
Convicted for her role in a cocaine trafficking operation in 1996, a judge sentenced her to life behind bars plus 25 years with no possibility of parole, which doesn’t exist in the federal system. Johnson was among more than a dozen defendants in the case.
“They were never able to come out and visit me,” she said. “My entire time that I spent in prison, almost 22 years, it was really a very hard thing on my family ... I had grandchildren being born who didn’t know me.”
Since former President Donald Trump commuted her sentence and she was released from prison in 2018, Johnson, who turns 66 this month, has become an advocate for criminal justice reform. Two years later, Trump granted her a full pardon.
She joined Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, and Mark Holden, Americans for Prosperity board chairman, at a Hatch Foundation webinar Thursday titled “Justice and Mercy: Bringing Greater Balance to America’s Legal System.” The panelists talked about police reform, solitary confinement and reentry to society.
Johnson said that when she read about Lee’s and Holden’s long-standing reform efforts while in prison, she never thought she would be working alongside them one day. Lee credited Johnson and Holden for helping get his First Step Act signed into law in 2018. The law recalibrates penalties for low-level drug offenses and loosens federal minimum mandatory sentencing guidelines, among other things.
Lee said sentences must be proportional to the severity of the crime because if they’re not, the criminal justice system loses its sense of legitimacy. Meantime, people’s mothers and fathers or sons and daughters are locked up for years as the result of an offense that doesn’t warrant the punishment, he said.
“This in turn, weakens communities. It weakens families. It diminishes opportunities for rehabilitation of people who, while flawed and have made mistakes, really are very much still children of a loving God and family members of a loving family,” he said.
Many marriages don’t survive the financial strain and loss of affection when a spouse is behind bars, and children in those families are more likely to engage in criminal activity, Lee said.
“If we want to keep the formerly incarcerated from falling into old habits, we need to start by keeping families together,” Johnson said.
Shifting the focus from punishment to rehabilitation would help families across the country, she said.
Holden said the first day in prison should be the first day toward a person getting better. Prisons need to get to a place where people are coming out better, not bitter, he said.
“We should be much more focused on corrections and rehabilitation. It needs to be about restoration. It needs to be about redemption. It needs reform,” he said.
A Department of Justice report found that 63% of federal offenders are incarcerated more than 100 miles from their families. The First Step Act sets the limit at 500 miles, but Holden said it should be much lower.
Living in a “Zoom world” right now should make it easier for people to talk to their loved ones in prison, Holden said.
“With all this technology, I don’t understand why that isn’t happening,” he said.
Johnson was eventually moved to a prison closer to her home. She also was able to talk to family members on the telephone, though it was expensive at $4 per 15-minute call for someone who makes 12 cents an hour at a prison job.
People in prison don’t need the added strain of not being able to speak with family members through the telecommunication options available to today, Lee said. It serves no legitimate purpose.
“It’s just mean,” he said. “There’s no reason to make it any worse than it’s got to be.”
Lee and Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., proposed a bill in 2015 that would have banned solitary confinement for minors. With adults, he said, it needs to be evaluated to make sure it’s not used excessively. Sometimes it’s necessary to protect the inmate and other inmates, he said.
Matt Sandgren, Hatch Foundation executive director, said solitary confinement has been shown to cause panic attacks, depression, paranoia and in the worst cases, self-harm or suicide. Even nonviolent offenders can be placed in solitary, he said.
Johnson said she saw women in solitary confinement for as long as five years, and they were not the same people when they came out.
“It exacts a very, very strong mental toll because as humans, we need that contact,” she said.
Holden said there are many obstacles for people as they’re released from prison, including finding a job, getting a place to live and obtaining an occupational license.
“It’s the second prison, these collateral consequences,” he said.
He advocates for “second-chance hiring” and encourages workplaces to reevaluate policies that keep earnest and well-qualified individuals from finding employment.
Johnson said she made a decision when she went to prison to never give up hope and that she would keep her faith in God.
“I asked the Lord if he could use me in prison to use me. I became a force for good in prison,” she said. “I did what I could to make the environment better for the women who I was incarcerated with.”
During her more than two decades behind bars, Johnson became a playwright, an ordained minister, hospice volunteer and mentor for thousands of women who became her prison family. She said her advocacy work is for the women and men she left behind after she received her “miracle” of freedom.
“Those are the ones that I am fighting for because I, too, was one of them,” she said. “But I’m not only fighting for them. I am also fighting for their families because when one person goes to prison, their entire family goes with them.”