Gloria Williams is the longest-serving incarcerated woman in Louisiana. Last July, after nearly 50 years in prison, she was finally and unanimously approved for pardon. Since then, Williams, her children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren have awaited the signature of Governor John Bel Edwards, the final major hurdle before her release from the Louisiana Correctional Institute for Women (LCIW). But that has yet to happen.
Instead, the nightmare scenario of a hyper-contagious virus has unfolded. And while many of us drowned out the anxiety with TV and begged family members to wash their hands, Williams’ family—and the families of incarcerated people across Louisiana—watched as the virus slipped easily into their loved ones’ prison cells, bars be damned. On March 28 the Louisiana Department of Public Safety & Corrections (DOC) announced the first positive coronavirus case among its prisoners. By the end of April, the virus was responsible for the death of Sandy McCain, the warden of DOC’s Laborde Correctional Center, as well as two women from LCIW. Gloria Williams, whose pardon had already been approved, was in an intensive care unit fighting COVID-19. To date, 85% of the women at LCIW have tested positive for the novel coronavirus, the highest rate of any state prison.
The news has been shocking not just because of the horror of being incarcerated during a pandemic, but because Williams has achieved a kind of fame over the half century of her incarceration. Williams is beloved in the LCIW community and described as an almost saintly presence for the women who are incarcerated there. People call her “Mama Glo” because of the mentoring she has provided to the women who have served time alongside her.
One of those women is Sibil Fox Richardson. She and her husband, Robert, are criminal justice reform advocates who go by the collective name FoxandRob; they know what it’s like to wait on pins and needles for a commutation. After Robert served 21 years of a 60 year sentence in Angola, they were “the only incarcerated family in 2018 to receive the governor’s signature and be released,” Fox told me. Their story has garnered its own celebrity, including a documentary, Time, that premiered at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. They’re using their platform to share Mama Glo’s story and push for her release, including sitting down with me to discuss the details of how clemency can be used to save lives in the age of COVID-19 and reduce Louisiana’s prison population in the long run.
How was it that you first met Gloria Williams?
Fox: I met Gloria Williams when I was incarcerated at LCIW, 18 years ago.
What is she like? What is it like to be around her?
Fox: I think just the fact that everyone in the prison refers to her as Mama Glo—even the security guards—that is the most telling aspect of who she is. She has mothered basically every woman that has desired her to, that has come through the women’s prison in the almost 50 years that she has been there.
So what would be a typical thing that somebody might go to Mama Glo for help with?
Fox: Probably dealing with the separation of children and family. That’s probably the biggest issue that women that are incarcerated deal with: how to address and maintain relationships with their children and their family, especially in the midst of long suffering and the crisis of incarceration.
How did you first start working towards her clemency petition?
Fox: Mama Glo was one of the founding members of the LCIW Drama Club. “The Graduates” [are] those women that came from the LCIW Drama Club and started performing monologues about what it’s like to be an incarcerated woman. They brought it to our attention (because I’m a Graduate as well) that Mama Glo had a pardon hearing coming up, set for July 23 . And we knew that what had been done for us, we had to do for her. Because she had almost served 50 years at that point. She had left behind five children that were still seeing about her and in relationship with her; and that has to speak volumes in itself about who she is, that she could mother children and maintain a bond from behind prison bars for 50 years. So she became our first campaign.
How have you been campaigning for her, like back in 2019 for the pardon hearing?
Fox: We are the founders of an organization called the Participatory Defense Movement NOLA. We teach legal awareness as the best form of defense. We founded our Participatory Defense hub on my husband’s release from prison through the clemency process… One of the first things that we did was we worked with the Promise of Justice Initiative, who provided legal counsel to represent Mama Glo before the pardon board. The second thing we did was we made sure that her family were familiar with what they needed and could be there to support her. We shared with Mama Glo the types of questions we watched the pardon board ask. And above all, we were able to get letters of support from the women and families that she had mentored over the years provided to the pardon board on her behalf. And that was one of the most powerful tools for the pardon board, was seeing how many women that were incarcerated and formerly incarcerated that wrote letters of support for Mama Glo for her clemency… The other piece that you’ve got to understand about Mama Glo’s situation is that she is in prison for robbing a corner store with a toy gun in 1971. The store operator pulled out a weapon and the [other] female co-defendant ended up in a tussle with the store operator and he was killed. So the person that actually was engaged in the actual shooting died in prison 15 years ago of cancer. The man that was the [third] co-defendant received clemency in 1987 from Edwin Edwards.
When was it that you learned Mama Glo had gotten sick?
Fox: [On] April 24, some of the women that we are supporting for clemency and relief reached out and told us that she had been rushed off to the hospital, and that some of the women in her dorm had COVID. She had called the week before and said that some of the women, they had taken them out of the dorm, and they had COVID-19. The women cannot be six feet away from each other. They were not getting the proper room for social distancing and not enough support for sanitation. At one point I got an email saying that they didn’t even have hot water.
Does part of this high infection rate come from the flooding of LCIW in 2016?
Fox: Well, the overcrowding that the flooding caused. Because what they did when the women’s prison flooded in 2016, they took those thousand women that were housed there and put them in closed-down prisons that they had previously closed down because they felt they were uninhabitable for men. And now you move our women there? [DOC had] closed down Jetson [JCY] because they said it wasn’t conducive to house our youth in. And then in the middle of the night, they threw those women in there out of the flood, made them clean up the space in the middle of the night themselves. You hear me? And then put them in these abandoned facilities and there’s still no word of when they’re going to build a new women’s prison.
They took the women of the original LCIW and then moved them?
Fox: They put them in Phelps. Phelps was a closed-down prison. They put them in JCY, which was Jetson, that they had closed down because they said it was not good for our children to live in. That’s where they put our women. And they put them in Hunt, and they put them in Angola. They spread them all over the state. Mama Glo is in Hunt. Hunt in particular is called LCIW because it shares the same property line as where LCIW was. So they’re still referring to that facility as LCIW at Hunt.
What are they doing to protect people who are housed there from COVID-19?
Fox: They moved Mama Glo back into her dorm room—the dorm she came from when she went into the hospital.
Have you been able to speak to her or her family recently?
Fox: I talk with her family daily. On Sunday [May 17], I believe it was, she did call. She finally was able to get enough strength to walk to the phone to call her children.
Why is it taking the governor so long to sign Mama Glo’s clemency order?
Fox: When you consider the amount of vetting that transpires before someone can even go up for a pardon, it is a disservice to taxpayers to think that we are spending money and resources to do all of this vetting and to receive this recommendation from people the governor has appointed; and yet the governor still fails to act upon all the work that has been done and presented to him. These people on this board are his trusted fellows that he appoints to make these decisions for him. They do all of this investigation and vetting, only for him to still not move. There are currently, I think, 167 people who have been recommended for clemency that are incarcerated in Louisiana and our governor has not signed. In the year that Robert applied, there were 2,000 people, I believe, that applied for pardon. Of that, about 200-something people actually got a hearing. And of that, in 2018, one [Robert’s] got signed… And so as it pertains to Mama Glo, we have been waiting and working to reach the governor, to share with him the plight of Gloria and the 50 year sentence. There was no victim opposition at her pardon board hearing. No letter from the family. And the pardon board takes very seriously any opposition from the family. Nobody showed up. No lawyer came on their behalf. No district attorney came to oppose her… So if none of those organizations or families expressed at that critical moment opposition to her being released, why would our governor not grant Louisiana’s longest serving woman—mother, grandmother—an opportunity to return home? Especially after waiting nine months for her application to be signed, to turn around and contract COVID-19 at 74 years old, being comorbid. We got a letter from the governor’s office that stated that the governor was going to be considering clemency applications for those who had been approved who were comorbid. The attorney for Mama Glo sent a letter to the governor’s office sharing her medical history, documenting her comorbidity, while she was in the ICU fighting for her life from COVID-19. And still we got no response. Now Mama Glo, barely walking, was returned to the prison most infested with COVID-19. LCIW has the highest rate of infection, almost 100% of the women there have tested positive for COVID-19 [85% as of May 6]. And when she got out of ICU, they returned her back to the same place she contracted the illness.
Is it typical for recommendations to pile up on a governor’s desk like this?
Fox: I’m comfortable in saying [Edwards] is still under 40 pardons for incarcerated people well into his second term. And those numbers pale in comparison to both Republican and Democratic governors. Even Mike Foster signed more pardons than John Bel Edwards has. We don’t even count what Jindal did because we all know he was running for president. I think he only signed two incarcerated people in the whole eight years he was in office. He was the extreme, so we don’t even count him. But if you look at Dave Treen, if you look at Edwin Edwards, if you look at Mike Foster, Kathleen Blanco—[John Bel Edwards] has not done nearly as many [commutations] as his Democratic or Republican predecessors. The numbers are important because it shows that getting a pardon is like Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. To get the golden seal is just as far-reaching as getting the golden ticket. And it should not be that way, because one of the things we have as a tool to implement criminal justice reform is clemency. We don’t have to pass legislation. We don’t have to pass any laws. We can just look at those that have been properly vetted in the system by the people appointed on the board of pardons. And with what they spent doing in 2017 with the Justice Reinvestment Task Force, all of the meetings—they did all of that only to reduce our prison population by one percent a year over the next ten years. That’s all we’re doing. We have 40,000 people in the prison population. So 1% is 400 a year.
What is it like to sit and wait for the governor’s signature?
Rob: I would definitely not know what it’s like to be waiting on the governor’s signature and then contract a life-threatening virus, but the anticipation that you feel while waiting on the governor’s signature is pretty scary. Scary in the sense that it can be easily taken away from you. Something as simple as a write-up: you have too many pairs of shoes out, you left a wet towel out that you bathed with earlier that morning hanging on the side of your bed rail or something like that (because you don’t have a washer and dryer). It doesn’t take anything for a security officer to come in and say, “You’re in violation because of such,” and as a result of it, they give you a write-up, and that one write-up upsets everything that you’ve worked towards up to that point. Which means that if you get a write-up, your pardon process just came to an end.
It sounds impossible.
Rob: There’s a lot of maintaining and holding onto your sanity that you have to do, and I know what that felt like at 21 years, so I can only imagine what it must feel like at 50 years. And then with all the other added issues of COVID and age and comorbidity. When you add those in, it only helps to add insult and injury. We try to remind Mama Glo of all these moving parts that are happening on her behalf that she herself may not be able to cognitize. You know, in a way that is relieving for her. Those are just some of the things that we try to do because I know that they were important for me when I was sitting in a similar situation wondering whether or not the governor was going to act on my matter, and if so, how soon it was going to take.
How do you keep going when it feels like you’re being confronted with a brick wall?
Fox: I don’t see it as a brick wall. One: the fact that Mama Glo beat COVID-19, you have to count the small signs along the way. She was strong enough to not succumb to COVID-19. There are two other women that came out of that prison with her that went to the hospital that did not make it, that were younger than her. And so to me, there are no brick walls, it is just stepping stones that we continue having to navigate and move around. This is a moral issue with the release of Mama Glo. It’s not about ego, it’s not about politics. It is just about human dignity.
The print edition of this story reported that a son of Budge Cutrera, the victim of the 1971 crime, opposed clemency for Gloria Williams as did local prosecution and law enforcement officials (as reported in The Advocate). To clarify, those who opposed did not appear in person during Williams’ July 2019 hearing with the Louisiana Board of Pardons. The office of Governor John Bel Edwards has not responded to requests for comment for this story. Mama Glo is on supplementary oxygen and recovering from the effects of COVID-19 at LCIW in St. Gabriel, Louisiana. Sixty year old Dorothy Pierre was one of the two women from LCIW who died of the virus. She had three children and seven grandchildren and had served more than 20 years of her sentence. She was scheduled for a hearing with the Louisiana Board of Pardons and Parole on May 18, 2020.
Mama Glo illustrations by Happy Burbeck