It was a scene that would be surreal in any year other than 2018: two former reality-TV stars, sat in the White House to discuss prison reform. Kim Kardashian West met President Donald Trump yesterday, to lobby for a potential pardon for Alice Marie Johnson, a 63-year-old great-grandmother who is currently serving life in prison. And like many others who came across Johnson’s terrible case and were moved by it, it first caught the beauty mogul’s eye after she saw a short viral video about her posted on social media.
Johnson’s harrowing story couldn’t be more removed from two of the world’s most rich and famous people, but struck a chord with many in the US and across the globe. She has been imprisoned for more than two decades for a first-time drug offence, arrested in 1993 alongside 15 others on drug charges. Ten of her co-defendants testified against her and received sentences from no jail time to 10 years. Johnson, however, was jailed in 1996 on money laundering and drug conspiracy charges and convicted of being a "telephone mule", relaying messages between drug distributors and sellers. Even though it was her first offence, she was sentenced to life in prison without parole.
Over the past 20-plus years, she has been a model inmate, according to her family and supporters, and has been active in several programmes, including working in the prison hospice. She fitted all of the criteria for former president Barack Obama's Clemency Project 2014, but was sadly denied just days before the end of his term.
"I acknowledge that I have done wrong," Johnson reportedly once said. "I made the biggest mistake of my life to make ends meet and got involved with people selling drugs."
There have been several unsuccessful attempts to have her released over the years – Amy Povah, the founder of CAN-DO Clemency, has been advocating for Johnson's release since 2014 and says she has helped collect signatures from 70 organisations who support the pardon, as well as a letter of support from the retired warden of Johnson's prison. The hope is that, with the increased visibility of Kardashian West, justice will finally be served. As one of Johnson's lawyers, Brittany Barnett, told The Daily Mail, "The message to the president is that Alice Johnson, the 21 years she has been in prison, represents a punishment that more than pays her debt to society and that to keep her prison the rest of her life is morally and economically unjustifiable."
The alliance between Trump and Kardashian West has made some commentators uneasy, while Trump is seemingly enthusiastic about this particular case, there are undoubtedly thousands that deserve closer examination
The case highlighted the disproportionate prison sentencing of black people for drug offences in the US, and her story made national headlines last year, aided in part by Kardashian West tweeting about it to her to 60 million followers. Soon after, a petition calling for her release was posted and has since gathered more than 260,000 signatures.
Since hearing of her, Kardashian West has become increasingly involved, asking her long-time personal lawyer, Shawn Holley, to take a look at the case, and she is paying for a new legal team for Johnson. Jared Kushner, a senior adviser to the president and his son-in-law, has been pushing for federal prison reform and speaking with Kardashian West about the case for months. Johnson's daughters have said that the process has sped up considerably since Kardashian West's involvement.
Now, things are potentially looking positive for Johnson. Trump tweeted that he and Kardashian West had a "great meeting” and is believed to be in favour of waiving Johnson's sentence after the move was backed by his daughter Ivanka. Trump has issued only a handful of pardons previously, including one for former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, a staunch supporter of his campaign; one for Scooter Libby, who served as chief of staff to Vice President Dick Cheney; and one for a US Navy sailor convicted of taking photos of classified portions of a submarine. As the process of pardoning is entirely at the president's discretion, Johnson’s family are hopeful that he and Kardashian West’s meeting will see her join that short list.
Johnson’s is notably a very different cause and case, making many wary that it is simply a political ploy. The alliance between Trump and Kardashian West has made some commentators uneasy, while Trump is seemingly enthusiastic about this particular case, there are undoubtedly thousands that deserve closer examination, and of course the swathes of individuals that his policies continue to target and oppress. It is difficult not to interrogate either of their motives, when so much of their careers up to this point have relied on photo ops and press manipulation. Still, the overriding emotion among most is simply hope that Johnson is able to live her life again.
“It is our hope that the President will grant clemency to Ms Alice Marie Johnson who is serving a life sentence for a first-time, non-violent drug offence,” Kardashian West said on Twitter. “We are optimistic about Ms Johnson’s future and hopeful that she – and so many like her – will get a second chance at life."