MEMPHIS, Tenn. — The hype over the commutation of her life sentence by President Donald Trump at the request of Kim Kardashian West has started to die down. Now, Alice Marie Johnson turns to a much harder task: beginning a normal life outside of prison.
Johnson wasted little time during her two decades behind bars, taking classes on electrical work and personal training, earning a certification in hospice care, and choreographing dances for prison shows. At age 63, she has a job lined up as an office administrator at a dentist's office.
She's confident and happy, smiling widely during interviews and doing a little dance in her chair between appearances on morning TV programs. She promises not to waste her opportunity for a new life after her release from a federal prison in Alabama on Wednesday.
She knows others might not get that chance.
"I feel that I owe it to the people that I left behind. Their voices have not been magnified the way that my voice is," she said. "So, I'm going to work hard to make a difference. I hope that as people see my success story back into society, that it will help others to be set free."
Johnson was convicted in 1996 on eight criminal counts related to a Memphis-based, multimillion-dollar cocaine trafficking operation involving more than a dozen people. The 1994 indictment describes dozens of deliveries and drug transactions, many involving Johnson. Federal courts, including the Supreme Court, rejected her appeals. Prosecutors opposed a pending reduction in her sentence, citing federal guidelines based on the large quantity of drugs involved.
"I will never forget having that door slam shut behind me, and knowing that freedom had just been cut off," she said. "It took me just a moment, but I realized that I had to, I had to, get a grip even on my emotions, and I decided to turn it around and make the best of the situation because I refused to allow anything to take my life."
Kardashian West took up her cause, and presented her case to the president. Trump granted clemency, making Johnson instantly famous. She says Kardashian West saved her life and that Trump gave her "mercy."
She united with family and friends on Wednesday night, with a big meal of spaghetti, fried catfish, cole slaw, chicken and doughnuts. Next on her agenda, a "fat, juicy steak."
But she has more on her plate in the days ahead. Johnson plans to do whatever she can to push for sentencing reform for first-time, non-violent offenders. Her message to them: "Do not give up your hope."
"Continue to make the best of the situation, because you never know when something is going to change," Johnson said. "I feel the winds of change coming in prison reform, and just to be prepared to walk out that door."
Johnson spent Thursday doing interviews. She saw her first Memphis sunrise in two decades, and marveled at the way the city and society had changed.
"One of the things that's amazing to me is everyone has a phone. It seems that they're looking down at their phones, they're texting, they're doing something," she said. "I never saw that before."
Her grandson, Justin Johnson, 23, was about 1 ½ years old when his grandmother entered prison. The day she got out, he said, was "just a blur."
Johnson said he wants to take his grandmother on a walk by the river. He said Kardashian West "was the traction that we needed, not only for my grandmother, but also for prison reform in the future."
Johnson said he hopes that Trump's pardon is not seen as "something that he's doing just to get into the good graces of the black community."
"Personally, I feel like this isn't really a race matter for my grandmother," he said. "I feel like this is just a matter of taking the next step forward and trying to get our justice system in a better position."