A freed federal prisoner recounts how she got in—and out.
Johnson was born in Mississippi, one of nine children who lived in a sharecropper’s shack: “No matter where I was situated,” she writes, “I couldn’t toss or turn. We fit snugly together and dared not move until the next day, when the sun’s rays came through the poorly insulated windows and warmed us.” Her parents aspired to better things, though, and having secretly built a home in a town 10 miles away—secretly to avoid angering the white farm owner in those last days of Jim Crow—they moved. Johnson was a motivated, smart student who got pregnant as a sophomore in high school; she kept up with her education all the same, eventually getting a job as a secretary. A too-good-to-be-true scenario unfolded when she was recruited to act as a relayer of messages between customers and a drug ring—and then was arrested in a major sting operation. “I didn’t know this at the time,” she writes, “but whenever someone is up on drug charges, cooperating witnesses frequently jump in on that case to reduce their own sentences.” Promoted from go-between to ringleader as a result of others’ testimony, Johnson was sentenced, under mandatory guidelines, to life in a federal penitentiary—first California, meaning that her family could not afford to visit, and later in Texas and Alabama. She made good use of her prison time, writing religious plays, being cheerfully helpful, and steering clear of trouble—all qualities that helped bring her case to the attention of Kim Kardashian, who in turn put her husband, Kanye West, on it, using his connections: “I know Kanye had opened the door for my release through his support of President Trump.” Freed last year after serving “twenty-one years, seven months and six days,” she has since become an advocate for prisoners’ rights, “fighting for those I left behind.”
A moving, inspirational story that makes a powerful argument for sentencing reform.