Before discussing prison literacy programs, it is vital to understand literacy rates of those incarcerated and the systemic flaws in public education.
We know Kim Kardashian as a social media superstar—famous for being famous, a self-renewing resource of celebrity. She’s a bit like a real-life Barbie; it’s just that instead of going to medical school, launching herself into outer space, and tending to wounded animals (Barbie must have a fortune in student debt), Kardashian-West is a socialite, reality TV star, artist, entrepreneur, and cultural icon. We’d call her a wearer of many hats, except there just aren’t that many hats that Kardashian-West would deign to wear. Her latest look—advocate and contributor to prison reform—has the power to enact real social change. In fact, it already has.
Image Via People Magazine
In 2018, Kardashian-West intervened in the case of Alice Marie Johnson, a sixty-two-year-old great-grandmother serving life in prison for a nonviolent drug offense. Johnson became involved in the drug world after her divorce and the chain-reaction of misfortunes that followed: gambling addiction; bankruptcy; unemployment; and, worst of all, her son’s untimely death. Though Johnson never handled drugs directly while working for a cocaine-trafficking ring, she did pass along coded messages to facilitate the transactions. When the police caught onto the operation, ten co-conspirators turned her in. As a result of their cooperation, each received reduced sentences ranging from no time at all to ten years’ imprisonment.
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In 1997, Johnson was the only one sentenced to life. Since then, she’s expressed remorse for her involvement:
I felt like a failure… I went into a complete panic and out of desperation, I made one of the worst decisions of my life to make some quick money. I became involved in a drug conspiracy.
In an interview with Mic, Johnson describes the personal tragedies that have unfolded in her absence from the family home. Her mother, diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, has no caretaker. After her arrest, her only living son dropped out of school. He is currently imprisoned himself. “Unless things change,” Johnson pleaded, “I will never go home alive.”
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Does that upset you? It upset Kim K: after reading the article, she contacted Johnson’s legal team. “[Kardashian-West] was not only moved to tears,” said lawyer Brittney Barnett, “but moved to action.” In a highly-publicized stunt, the reality TV star met with Donald Trump to discuss the possibility of commuting Johnson’s sentence. An ecstatic Johnson offered her gratitude for the intervention:
Ms Kardashian, you are quite literally helping to save my life and restore me to my family. I was drowning and you have thrown me a life jacket, and given me hope that this life jacket I’m serving may one day be taken off.
And she had plenty to be grateful for. On May 30, 2018—Johnson’s birthday—she was officially free.
Image Via CBS
This week, an imprint of HarperCollins has announced that there’s more to Johnson’s story. The book, After Life: My Journey from Incarceration to Freedom, will be available on May 21. Harper has deemed it an “honest, faith-driven memoir” taking a “deep look into the system of mass incarceration.” Kardashian-West will write the foreword. In an official statement, she shared what the story means to her and to the world:
Her story is a gift that will now reach so many millions more through her book and film. I hope Alice’s case is just the beginning of a movement to help those left behind. I am invested in continuing to support Alice and this cause.
— Kim Kardashian West (@KimKardashian) February 6, 2019
Now that Johnson is free, she’s also free to tell her story. “I feel humbled that the telling of my story gives hope,” Johnson said, “and that my years of pain were not in vain.”