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Op-Ed: Stop mocking Kim Kardashian West for caring about prison reform

President Donald Trump and Kim Kardashian West.
(Associated Press)

We’ve come a long way since Season 1 of “Keeping Up with the Kardashians,” when Khloé was arrested for driving drunk and held in an L.A. County jail. When Kim explained that Khloé was in the clink, their mother Kris Jenner shouted: “You don’t leave somebody in jail!”

Kim Kardashian West took her mother’s scolding to heart, apparently. On Wednesday she met with President Trump to ask for clemency for Alice Marie Johnson, a 63-year-old woman serving a life sentence for her first offense, convictions for selling drugs and money laundering. Kardashian West isn’t leaving Johnson in prison. She has said she will do whatever’s necessary to get Johnson out.

But social media, news outlets and even justice reform advocates won’t have it.

CNN reporter Jim Acosta said Kardashian West “shouldn’t be here talking about prison reform,” adding that “It’s very nice that she is here, but that’s not a serious thing to have happened here at the White House.”

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The Twittersphere was equally dismissive, collectively wondering, Who does Kim think she is? “The only people that this administration should be meeting with to discuss prison reform are men & women that have been in the system or closely studied it” tweeted one user. “Prison reform is an issue that the black community has been behind for decades since they are disproportionately affected by it.. kim kardashian has no personal connection nor formal education on the matter. Yall will give a rich white women any platform she wants huh,” another wrote.

The main objection to Kardashian’s visit is that she is not an expert on justice reform. It’s true she has never done time, not even minutes in jail like sister Khloé. She hasn’t paraded her Jimmy Choos into criminal courtrooms, like her famed lawyer father. But she’s as qualified as anyone to fight for another person’s inherent human dignity and freedom. And I am an expert in the field, both because of my professional work now and because I served more than six years in a maximum-security prison.

It’s as if we’d rather a nonviolent drug offender perish in prison than allow a Kardashian to step on this platform.

The United States currently incarcerates 2.2 million people, more than any other country. Many of these people have lost chunks of their lives to prison because they became addicted to drugs or they grapple with untreated mental illness.

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A good number of them broke the law in serious ways. Their crimes make any pitch for prison reform or lenient sentencing a hard sell. They are rightly punished, although even for them, the punishment itself may not be right. In any case, policymakers are often deaf to appeals for prisoners’ human rights. To make the case for criminal justice reform, then, advocates often reduce the problems of a flawed system to numbers and statistics that we think will sway those on the outside, who have no real knowledge of prison life or what led people to end up there.

We say, “Mass incarceration costs you billions in tax dollars and makes you less safe,” instead of making the plain argument that it is wrong to warehouse people in industrial buildings because they’re sick, abused or needy.

Kardashian gets this. She is affected by the pure inhumanity of a life sentence for a nonviolent first offense. That’s the kind of reaction justice reform advocates want to have on people in power but often can’t achieve. We have no business shunning her. It’s as if we’d rather a nonviolent drug offender perish in prison than allow a Kardashian to step on this platform.

It’s possible that this will be a one-and-done deal for Kardashian West. If she gets Johnson freed, will she also care about how women are the fastest growing correctional population? Or that splitting up families in immigration detention facilities is nothing new; it’s been done to U.S. citizens for years in criminal courthouses.

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Or it might be the case that one of the culture’s most powerful influencers has joined the justice reform team. She may use her wealth and power to inform herself about prison reform more broadly. She could, for example, convene a summit to hear the experiences of incarcerated women and men. She has also said she will keep fighting for the jailed “one at a time.”

Kardashian West’s high profile, privileged work “one at a time” may succeed. I think we need to thank her for trying. And if we can’t muster any gratitude, we can at least leave her alone. She’s allowed to care about a fellow human being.

Chandra Bozelko writes the blog Prison Diaries, which recently won the People’s Voice Webby Award.

Twitter: @aprisondiary.

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