But even as the novel coronavirus has dramatically altered the fabric of everyday life, Kardashian West’s mind is on a forgotten population affected by the American outbreak: inmates.
“With the coronavirus in prisons right now, people can’t go anywhere and they can’t do anything,” Kardashian West told The Washington Post. “There’s so many people inside that are scared, or people not getting their visitation even because people are trying to lock down. I wish [prisons] would change the visitation and allow maybe phone calls instead.”
The response was a window into how Kardashian West has evolved, going from a mega-celebrity known for “Keeping Up With the Kardashians,” her beauty products — and occasional jabs at Taylor Swift — into something different.
Since successfully persuading President Trump to commute Alice Marie Johnson’s life sentence for nonviolent offenses in 2018, Kardashian West has become an unlikely champion for criminal justice reform. As Vogue magazine put it, there’s been something of an awakening in how the 39-year-old reality star and business mogul has used her vast media empire to advocate for the release of federal inmates. That was further cemented last year, when, in a 90-day period, she helped secure the release of 17 inmates facing life sentences as first-time nonviolent drug offenders.
Her road toward criminal justice reform is highlighted in “Kim Kardashian West: The Justice Project,” a two-hour documentary premiering Sunday on Oxygen that looks at the toll of mass incarceration in America and the people affected by it. The film showcases her work on four cases, featuring Kardashian West visiting inmates serving life sentences to help understand what’s needed to support, rehabilitate and release those facing harsh prison terms.
“There is a mass incarceration problem in the United States,” she emphasized in the film’s trailer. “People deserve a second chance.”
In an interview with The Washington Post last week, Kardashian West acknowledged that her children have been a driving force behind her advocacy work, especially when it comes to a system that has discriminated against black and brown people.
“I think all the time, ‘That could so easily be one of my children if they’re hanging out with the wrong crowd, or at the wrong party, or at the wrong place at the time,’ ” she said. “I want to help make sure that my kids have a better chance, with a better system, and not have to be in fear that because of the color of their skin, that they are more targeted.”
In the documentary, Kardashian West remembers what it meant for her to work with Trump to get Johnson’s release, and how the story surrounding the 64-year-old blew up in a way not many anticipated. When she started working with the Trump administration in 2018 to commute Johnson’s life sentence, Kardashian West was warned by fans and critics alike with a common sentiment.
“Don’t go into the White House or your career is over,” Kardashian West told The Post.
What could it mean for her to make an appeal of this magnitude, from one reality star and business mogul to another in Trump? It didn’t matter to Kardashian West, a self-described “nonhuman soul” not fazed by criticism.
“To me, I always had the stance of, ‘Okay, well, my career or my reputation, that will be in a small, fast news cycle, versus someone’s life?’” Kardashian West said. “To me, their life was more important than a bad story about me. I know where I stand. I would always want to fight for people that can’t fight for themselves, no matter what administration I’m working with.”
So when Johnson’s sentence was commuted, it opened up a chance to do more of that. Kardashian West pointed to Trump’s signing of the First Step Act, which has led to the release of thousands of inmates serving harsh sentences for low-level and nonviolent crimes, as a sign that stories like Johnson’s prove that significant overhaul of the federal justice system remains achievable.
“I feel like Alice really was a good eye-opener and heart-opener for people that might not have been sympathetic toward reform,” said Kardashian West, who has since returned to the White House to promote reform. “Once they saw Alice, I really believe that she helped change so many people, both on the right and the left, to come together to pass these bills that would change a lot of people’s lives.”
Momolu Stewart was one of the people whose life changed after speaking with Kardashian West. When she first started on this path of criminal justice reform, Kardashian West said she could not see herself supporting inmates behind bars for violent crimes, like Stewart. But that changed once she started to hear their stories, listening to some of the horrors that ultimately shaped their lives.
Stewart was 16 years old when he was sentenced to life in prison for a 1997 murder, a crime for which he takes full responsibility. As The Post’s Keith L. Alexander reported, Stewart earned his GED, racked up 1,400 hours of educational programs and became a mentor to troubled youths.
“I don’t want to make an excuse, as I’m sorry and I’m hurt because of it,” Stewart told The Post. “But I’m taking every step I can to give back to my community … I’m still working on the process of forgiving myself.”
Kardashian West met him last year while touring a Washington prison for the documentary. She agreed to write a letter of support to the D.C. judge overseeing his petition for resentencing. Months later, Superior Court Judge Robert Salerno ordered Stewart’s release.
“I felt like she was connected to criminal justice reform and my case on a whole other level,” noted Stewart, a 40-year-old youth activist and public speaker. “I’m a testament to that.”
While some have remained skeptical of her pivot toward criminal justice reform, Kardashian West said it’s been a meaningful change. She recalled how she first found her love of the law through her weekly watching of “60 Minutes” and “Dateline” and from her father, the late attorney Robert Kardashian.
When her family’s home turned into a weekend office for O.J. Simpson’s defense attorneys in 1995, a young Kim Kardashian wondered about the hidden wall in her father’s legal library. Then 14, the curious Kardashian eventually pushed on the wall in her father’s office and discovered a hidden room. Inside, she would thumb through evidence books and other Simpson-related paperwork from the murder case that captivated America — “just stuff that I shouldn’t be looking through.”
She has come a long way from the teen sneaking around her father’s hidden library. Kardashian West recently completed her first year of a four-year lawyer apprenticeship program and is aiming to take the bar exam in California in 2022.
As the phone interview came to an end, Kardashian West said she is optimistic that, in a time of uncertainty, people can find empathy for those seeking a second chance.
“It is a scary time, and I hope that people just still are sympathetic to people that are behind bars and scared just like everyone else is,” said Kardashian West, still on her treadmill before the kids wake up.