When Alice Marie Johnson was convicted of drug conspiracy and money laundering in 1997, she had never before seen the inside of a prison cell. Her haunting story sheds light on the lives of the thousands of Americans — most of whom are black and come from poor backgrounds — sentenced to die behind bars for nonviolent drug-related crimes.
A single mother struggling to make ends meet for her five children, Johnson was married and had her first pregnancy at age 15. Though the school board of her high school in Olive Branch, Mississippi tried to force her to drop out, Johnson refused, graduating with honors two years later before going on to college.
Things went downhill for Johnson in 1989, when she and her husband divorced. The following year, she lost her job of 10 years at the FedEx Corporation due to a gambling addiction. With no way to pay her bills, Johnson filed for bankruptcy in 1991 and her house was foreclosed on. In a moment of tragedy for the entire family, Johnson's youngest son, Cory, was killed in a scooter accident in 1992.
Alice Marie Johnson with her children and grandchildren. Image courtesy of the ACLU.
Having hit rock bottom, Johnson began to associate with people who were involved with drug dealing. She became wrapped up in a lucrative operation that transported cocaine to Memphis, Tennessee for distribution. In 1993, she was arrested and accused, along with 15 others, on various drug and money laundering charges.
At trial, prosecutors convinced 10 of her co-conspirators to testify against her in exchange for reduced or, in some cases, dropped charges. Johnson admits she acted as a go-between, relaying coded messages like "everything is straight" by telephone, but says that she never personally made drug deals or sold drugs.
Nevertheless, while the co-defendants who testified against her were given sentences ranging from probation without jail time to 10 years, Johnson was sentenced to life in prison without parole, plus 25 years.
Image courtesy of RT.com
Johnson is now 58, and her 16 years of incarceration have taken a toll on her and her family. "It feels like I am sitting on death row," she says. "Unless things change, I will never go home alive." Meanwhile, Johnson has been unable to care for her mother, who has Alzheimer's disease. Her only son dropped out of school and is now in prison himself.
"There is no light at the end of the tunnel," remarked Johnson's eldest daughter, Tretessa. "It’s like a waking death, it’s like the person is alive but they’re not. There’s never a point of closure, ever. It’s heartbreaking for me."
Anna Marie Johnson is just one of more than 110 case studies of prisoners serving life without parole for nonviolent offenses from a recently-released ACLU report, titled, "A Living Death." Her daughter's words echo the anguish expressed by countless relatives of those doomed to die behind bars for low-level, nonviolent drug and property crimes.
"The punishments these people received are grotesquely out of proportion to the crimes they committed," said Jennifer Turner, ACLU human rights researcher and author of the report, in an ACLU press release. Possession of a crack pipe, acting as a middleman in the sale of $10 of marijuana, possession of a bottle cap containing a trace amount of heroin too small to weigh, selling of a single crack rock, and shoplifting a $159 jacket were among the crimes featured in the report that resulted in sentences of life without parole.
The ACLU report identifies more than 3,200 prisoners in nine states and the federal system who are serving life without parole. Four out of five are Black or Hispanic. Virtually all come from poor backgrounds, and many committed one or more (mostly nonviolent) crimes prior to their conviction.
Image courtesy of ACLU
In many cases, "three-strikes" laws and other habitual offender statutes gave judges no choice but to issue the harshest possible punishment aside from death. For more than 80 percent of the people surveyed by the ACLU, a life without parole sentence was mandatory.
"I think a life sentence for what you have done in this case is ridiculous; it is a travesty." said Federal District Judge James R. Spencer while sentencing a man for selling small amounts of crack cocaine in a run-down section of Richmond, Virginia to support his own drug addiction. "I don’t agree with it, either. And I want the world and the record to be clear on that. This is just silly. But as I say, I don’t have any choice."
The ACLU's report comes at a time when America is questioning the effectiveness of its "tough on crime" approach to drug policy and harsh sentencing procedures. "These cases underscore that our mass incarceration experiment has resulted in monstrous injustice and waste — a waste of tax dollars and of human lives," wrote New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof in response to the ACLU's findings.
The ACLU argues that nonviolent drug crime would be "more appropriately addressed outside of the criminal justice system altogether" through shorter prison sentences, more readily available mental health resources, and state-sponsored drug treatment for addicts.
"I wished that I would have received treatment for substance abuse and I believed that my effort would have changed my life. I was denied treatment," remarked Stanley Carnell Veal, one of the prisoners from the ACLU case studies. Veal was sentenced to life in prison without parol at age 41 for simple possession of two rocks of crack cocaine.
Stanley Veal, courtesy of the ACLU
Dr. Ethan Nadelmann, head of the Drug Policy Alliance, a drug policy reform advocacy group, believes that drug treatment programs could significantly reduce incarceration and recidivism. "Oftentimes for poor people, the only way to get drug treatment is to get arrested and get it through the criminal justice system — which is about the worst possible place to get drug treatment," he said in an interview with PolicyMic.
The evidence provided in "A Living Death: Life Without Parole for Nonviolent Offences" is likely to add fuel to the national debate about U.S. drug policy and mass incarceration. Reform will require Americans to re-evaluate the way they view drug addiction.
In the meantime, the prisoners highlighted in the report will remain behind bars, forced to contemplate the nature of their crimes. You can hear their stories by exploring the map below, courtesy of the ACLU.