The photo of Kim Kardashian West and Donald Trump posing together in the Oval Office, which swiftly tore through social media a week ago, was obviously going to make history as a bizarre symbol of the times we’re now living in. But few people could have guessed that it would be significant beyond that.
Then yesterday, Trump commuted Johnson’s sentence.
Alice Marie Johnson is a 62-year-old great-grandmother sentenced to life without parole in 1996 for a nonviolent, first-offense drug crime. She has served 21 years in prison, and until recently had little hope of ever getting out. Considering worse crimes such a murder and rape can sometimes carry lighter sentences, Johnson’s story is a textbook example of the persistent failures of our country’s criminal justice system.
A lot of media outlets and Twitter fans have lauded Kardashian West for attempting to broach prison reform with the president, which Trump referenced specifically in his tweet of the photo. However, Kardashian West strayed away from terms like “prisom reform” in her pleas for Johnson’s release, making her cause noble, but singular. The White House’s statement on Wednesday afternoon was equally tepid toward prison reform stating, “Ms. Johnson has accepted responsibility for her past behavior and has been a model prisoner over the past two decades. Despite receiving a life sentence, Alice worked hard to rehabilitate herself in prison, and act as a mentor to her fellow inmates.”
Kardashian originally learned about Johnson from a viral video Mic published in October 2017, which spurred the reality star to say she’ll “do whatever it takes to get her out.” Johnson’s case is one of many heart-wrenching real life horror stories of the grim state of our prison system. And yet Kardashian West has single-handedly isolated Johnson’s story as one issue of clemency. Johnson was convicted of being part of a large-scale cocaine conspiracy, so her release would require a presidential pardon.
This administration gets to have a gold star on its record on how it’s handling prison reform, when in reality there are countless inmates with stories just like Johnson’s whose releases are far less likely.
It is not that Kardashian West’s cause—the release specifically of Alice Marie Johnson—isn’t one that is deserving of her time and our attention. We are at a bizarre cultural crossroads where media, justice, entertainment and politics have all intertwined. Crimes are being solved on Netflix, through the “true crime” podcasts and social media sleuths. Justice isn’t necessarily served traditionally anymore. It makes sense that Kardashian West would make Johnson’s case her cause, and she turned out to be Johnson’s most promising advocate for release. It’s just that Kardashian West is arguing for the ratification of an example of our unjust prison system, but has yet to use the language of prison reform as her platform.
America’s penitentiaries are one of our country’s most dire, yet controversial systems. The statistics paint a grim portrait in which the United States imprisons more people per capita than any other nation, and those prisoners are overwhelmingly people of color. Nonviolent drug crimes have become a gateway to jailing people of color, the same crimes for which white citizens are rarely jailed, and certainly not for years or decades. Plainly put, the issue of prison reform is deeply complex, and speaks to the simmering tensions on race in our country. It’s a noble cause for Kardashian West to take this to Trump, but she is doing so in limited terms that make a tidy PR package for herself and the president.
It’s easy to hear of Kim Kardashian West propelling Alice Marie Johnson to freedom and see nothing but altruism. But it is naïve to read only benevolence in a publicity bonanza architected by a reality television star who prides herself on “breaking the internet.” After her husband, Kanye West’s, controversial meeting with Trump, it’s impossible to ignore the subtext here that all parties are benefitting from this publicity. Kim’s visit helped subdue that animosity many had about Kanye’s meeting and his subsequent posts about the president. Trump benefits by associating with more neutral public figures. Kushner’s agenda is made more wholesome by Kim’s pleas.
Most nefariously, this administration gets to have a gold star on its record on how it’s handling prison reform, when in reality there are countless inmates with stories just like Johnson’s whose releases are far less likely. With the White House currently embroiled in scandal over its detention of children who were brought to the U.S. illegally, its stance on unfair imprisonment is far from noble. At least Alice Marie Johnson got something out of this media blitz too, her freedom, and perhaps she will become the advocate for prison reform that the world truly deserves.