Once incarcerated with a life sentence without the possibility of parole, recently released Alice Marie Johnson knows the power of second chances—and of hope.
She left prison in June thanks to a presidential grant of clemency, after serving nearly 22 years as part of a nonviolent federal drug case. For Koch Industries senior vice president and general counsel Mark Holden, Johnson’s case represents one of the key failures—and lessons—of a criminal justice system in need of reform at all levels.
At Google’s annual Zeitgeist conference this week in Arizona, Holden and Johnson joined Malika Saada Saar, Google’s senior counsel on civil and human rights, to discuss the role of technology in the conversation around incarceration as well as what others can do to change the system in their communities. Holden and Saada Saar previously collaborated on a joint op-ed for The Daily Beast in which they called for nationwide bail reform.
“We can make a difference. We can change a system. That is our history as Americans,” Johnson said. “One person. One person. There was only one shot, and it was called the shot heard ‘round the world. I want to be that face that is seen around the world.”
Holden compares the fight against the injustices of the current criminal justice system to fighting for the abolition of slavery, for civil rights, and for universal suffrage. The system, he said, “needs to be totally disrupted.” Part of that positive disruption is coming through programs like Safe Streets & Second Chances, a four-state pilot program supported by Koch Industries, the Texas Public Policy Foundation, Right on Crime, the Charles Koch Foundation and Florida State University, that is developing individualized reentry programs using evidence-based research. Pointing to successes in states across the country, Holden remarked that governors have embraced criminal justice reforms “for the savings, but they stay for the salvation.”
“That’s what we see again and again in stories like Alice’s,” Holden said. “That’s why we’re in this fight, and everybody should be in this fight, because it’s really beneath us, what we’re doing now. And it’s making us less safe.”
Through it all, Johnson says she never lost hope that she might one day leave her cell as a free woman. Thanks to the efforts of a wide array of people, including Kim Kardashian West, Johnson is now able to publicly advocate for others who are in the same position. As she acknowledged her family’s support during her incarceration, Johnson remembered how some women’s families had abandoned them and how she realized she could make an impact while in prison.
“I saw young women. I saw old women. I saw middle-aged women, that, if I could give them a spark of hope—and that’s what I was able to accomplish in prison with them. I’ve sat with women who were suicidal to tell them, ‘I am here for you.’ I’ve sat with women who were in hospice, who were dying, to say, ‘I’m not going to allow you to die alone.’ I’ve had to counsel with women to tell them, ‘I understand.’”
These women, she continued, came into prison “feeling as though they were thrown away, because that is how our prison system is set up."
“It is a warehouse for humans, and it is against everything that we believe in as a nation. This is more … than just a social issue,” Johnson said. “This is a humanitarian issue.”
Watch the full discussion: