ReformHER symposium in Miami

Valencia Gunder and Florida Sen. Jason Pizzo at the ReformHER symposium in Miami.

The New Florida Majority and the Dignity Florida Coalition hosted the first ever ReformHER Symposium in Miami with activist and icon for the criminal justice reform movement Alice Marie Johnson.

Johnson was serving a life sentence for non-violent drug trafficking until June 6, 2018, when President Donald Trump commuted her sentence at the urging of Kim Kardashian West. 

The ReformHER Symposium is one of a series of events across the state of Florida to discuss criminal justice reform from the perspective of women’s rights. The series will explore the intersectionality of mass incarceration from the vantage point of race, immigration status, gender, and sexual-based violence, and will address specific legislative initiatives to guarantee dignity for incarcerated women in Florida.

A number of other women, and men, also took part in the event, many of whom were arrested for nonviolent charges and many had to request multiple times to be released from the prison system. All of the speakers talked about how serving jail time changed their lives and impacted their relationships with family and close friends on Tuesday, Oct. 1, at Florida International University at its Wolfe Center in North Miami. State Sen. Jason Pizzo also was in attendance at the event and was recognized for his work in the justice system.

Johnson spoke about her past and how she came from a family of sharecroppers who raised her in the church and told her that education was power. Johnson said that she married young and had a difficult marriage that ended with her struggling to raise five children. She had two children in college and three more at home, and she had to file for bankruptcy. One of the children also died in a tragic scooter accident, and she was having a difficult time financially. Being a proud woman, she didn’t want to ask for help, but she said her family would have helped her if she asked for it.

“I was ashamed,” said Johnson. “I came from a family of achievers. They would not have rejected my plea for help. Being the independent woman I was, I didn’t want to ask for help.”

An offer came to Johnson to become involved with a drug conspiracy and she took it, she said, to get back on her feet. She was told whom to call and got paid good money for making phone calls. But the authorities caught up with the group and pulled everyone in. Johnson said that if she didn’t cooperate they would go after her daughter. To get her daughter freed from jail, she told the people who arrested her, she would do whatever they wanted. She got a life sentence with no chance of parole, just for dealing with drugs. Johnson said that she kept asking for parole and finally was granted it during the current administration.

She told the women in the room that they needed to fight for a seat at the table, and that they should speak truth to power.

“I was denied three times,” said Johnson. “I take my hat off to my former president. He granted clemency to 1,500 individuals but how many of them were women? Only 105. We have been left out of the dialogue. We need to demand a seat at the table. Leaving us out of the dialogue is not okay. The prisons are being filled with moms, daughters and grandmothers. They are being filled with us. How many women are sitting in jail pregnant? One of my sisters say, ‘have you ever heard of a pregnant man in prison?’”

Johnson said she served 21 years and she used those years wisely by writing, helping other women. She didn’t waste the time that she was put in there or spend it crying and moping about her fate.

“That’s 21 years, seven months and six days I will never get back,” said Johnson. “But I can help someone else by using my voice and my platform. I congratulate you Florida on making it heard. Continue on warrior women and continue to support warrior men.”

Cheryl Howard, who served jail time for a nonviolent drug offense, was one of the women whose sentences was commuted by former President Barack Obama. Howard was arrested in 1995 and convicted of possession with intent to distribute crack cocaine, and one count of conspiracy. Like Johnson, she was given a life sentence without the possibility of parole. She also kept asking to be paroled and her mom took her name to Sen. Cory Booker who took it to then President Obama.

Howard also said that it wasn’t about who granted her clemency but it was more about how hard she fought for it. The written law was designed to keep many women from getting justice, and it was up to women, and also men, to change the justice system.

“I want to say this,” said Howard. “It’s not about who gives you clemency. It’s about who is in you. That’s where the change starts.”

Hairdresser Cynthia Thomson spoke about how she served jail time after surviving a brutal rape and an attack at her place of work. She called law enforcement who never showed up and had to take her safety into her own hands by taking her gun out of the cash register. Her mother was with her as well, and she knew she had to protect the two of them.

Assistant District Attorney Angela Corey was serving then, said Thomson, and Corey pressed charges against Thomson instead of the people who attacked her.

“She was an assistant district attorney,” said Thomson, “and she thought it would be great to press charges against me. I smacked the guy over the head with a hand gun because I didn’t want his hands on me. I see women who are survivors, and survivors of sexual abuse and physical abuse who did not get protected by the state of Florida.”

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