Alice Johnson: I was sentenced to life in prison – here’s why I never lost hope

I sat up in my bunk at Federal Medical Center, Carswell, a prison in Texas. It was a Saturday, and we still had an hour or two before we had to stand in our cell to be officially counted by the guards. There were two bunks in each overcrowded cell, housing four women in a space designed for two. I left my bunk area and walked down to my friend’s cell.

“Josette,” I whispered at the door. We weren’t allowed to walk into each other’s cells, and I didn’t want to disturb her roommate. “I need to talk to you. Can you step out here?”

She looked up from her bunk, which she was making up. Instead of finishing, she turned and put on her slippers and came to me. We frequently walked through the atrium together, on the way to the microwave or just to stretch our legs. She and her sister Tracey were in prison, but I never pried about how they ended up there. It’s rude to ask people about their crimes, and I never wanted my impression of them to change based on their past. I took them as they were in that second, on that day.

ALICE JOHNSON, GREAT-GRANDMOTHER WHO HAD SENTENCE COMMUTED BY TRUMP, 'KNEW THAT GOD WAS GOING TO GET ME OUT'

I had to live in the moment. After all, I couldn’t change the past, and the future would always be the same as this day, yesterday, and the day before that.

In 1996, after a series of bad decisions resulted in my desperate (and illegal) attempt to make money, I was sentenced to life for my role in a Memphis drug conspiracy. I’d been told I wouldn’t leave prison unless I was carried out as a corpse.

But part of me didn’t believe it.

“What’s wrong?” Josette asked, her brow furrowed. “I had another dream.”

“Let me guess,” she said. “You got released again?”

Okay, so maybe being freed is a normal fantasy for people serving life sentences, but my dreams had taken on an important role while I was in prison.

“This one was so real I couldn’t get it out of my head,” I said. Josette came out of her cell, and this time we didn’t walk across the shiny cement floors of the atrium together. I didn’t want to be interrupted by the stares of other prisoners.

“I dreamed the case manager called me down to the office and said, ‘I have a phone call for you.’ When I got on the phone, I heard the voice of a woman. She said, ‘Alice, you’re being released from prison!’ ”

Josette’s eyes widened.

“I know I’m going to walk out of here,” I told her.

“I believe you,” she said earnestly. “But was that the whole dream?”

I felt like I was reliving it as I described it. I tilted my head and told her the rest of it more slowly.

“I didn’t even take the time to get all of my belongings, I just went outside. And there were many reporters putting microphones in front of my mouth. The microphones had the network logos emblazoned on them.” When I told Josette this detail, she laughed. Over the years, many women in the prison had come up to me and said, “I had a crazy dream about you, Miss Alice.” It didn’t matter if they were white, black, or Hispanic, the dreams all had the same theme: I was released and the media was reporting on it.

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“But this is the confusing part,” I said. Josette stood in rapt attention. “A beautiful woman was responsible for getting me out of prison. In the dream, I could see her face, and she was so very pretty.”

“Who could that have been?” Josette asked. “Your daughter?” “Maybe. Who else would care enough to try to get me out of here?” I asked. “I only know she was beautiful, but I didn’t recognize her.”

From the book "AFTER LIFE: My Journey from Incarceration to Freedom" by Alice Marie Johnson. Copyright © 2019 by Alice Marie Johnson. Published on May 21, 2019 by Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. Reprinted by permission.