ALICEVILLE, ALA. (WIAT) — Criminal justice reform advocate Alice Marie Johnson will be returning to a federal prison as a keynote speaker for the first time since her release in 2018.

Johnson spent 21 years behind bars in federal prison in Aliceville. She used that time to educate herself on the criminal justice system and has since become a fierce warrior for change.

“This prison is more than just a prison. I hate to call it hallowed ground, but a whole lot of praying went forward at this prison from me,” Johnson said. “So it’s a community of love. Of all the places that I’ve been, I’ve never been to a place like Aliceville, Alabama.”

The Aliceville First Baptist Church was filled Monday night with music and dancing, prayers and testimony from Johnson.

“The hope that Alice has lived out in front of us, has encouraged us to continue to share that message of ‘but God’ to everyone else around us,” says Aliceville prison Chaplain Rachel Floyd in a prayer.

“My daughter, I remember her coming out to visit me on one visit and I went back and I was broken that day. When she told me she was crying she said ‘coming here to visit you is like visiting a graveyard.’ She said ‘we can come and visit the place where your body is but we can never take you home’,” Johnson said.

Johnson will be back inside a federal prison but this time as a visitor, delivering a speech to the first graduates of Aliceville federal prison’s Life Connections Program, an 18-month program designed to help inmates with a second chance at life upon release.

“The fact that I’ll be seeing women who I left behind who are still incarcerated serving sentences, long sentences, that really is just inspiring me to go even harder,” Johnson said. “It’s like getting a boost of adrenaline that I’ve got to keep going because I’m their voice.”

Floyd says this course is a huge accomplishment for the participating inmates as many have never had a chance to walk across a stage. She says when planning the graduation ceremony, Johnson was her first choice to come share a message of hope.

“There is a life to live beyond just your time in prison. Yes, you did a crime. Yes, you are being held accountable for that. But you have such a great future,” Floyd said.

The graduation for the inmates is scheduled for 9 a.m. Tuesday.