Governor John Bel Edwards has yet to commute Gloria Williams’s sentence despite a parole board’s unanimous recommendation that she be freed. Now she is in critical condition at a Baton Rouge hospital.

After nearly 50 years in prison, 74-year-old Gloria Williams was taken to the hospital on Saturday after she complained about trouble breathing. There, she tested positive for COVID-19. She is now in the intensive care unit receiving oxygen treatment.

Williams is Louisiana’s longest-serving incarcerated woman. On July 22, 2019, the Louisiana Board of Pardons and Parole unanimously recommended that Governor John Bel Edwards commute her sentence to make her immediately eligible for parole. Her family, friends, and advocates were jubilant and looked forward to her upcoming release. The recommendation, however, has sat on Edwards’s desk for 276 days without action. Now, Williams is in critical condition at Our Lady of the Lake Regional Medical Center in Baton Rouge. 

Because she is still under the custody of the Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections (DOC), her family is unable to get information about her condition or her care. Her attorney, Mercedes Montagnes of the Promise of Justice Initiative, is able to do so only because Williams previously signed a waiver authorizing the release of her medical information. 

In 1971, Williams, then 25, was arrested in Opelousas, Louisiana, when she, a 16-year-old girl, and an adult man tried to rob a grocery store using Williams’s son’s toy gun. The store’s owner, Budge Cutrera, kept a gun holstered behind the counter. He and his wife resisted the would-be robbers and, during the struggle, Williams’s 16-year-old co-defendant found the gun and fatally shot Cutrera. Nine months later, all four were sentenced to life without parole.

Williams is the only person still imprisoned for Cutrera’s death. The woman who shot him died 15 years ago in prison. The third person, Philip Anthony Harris, was granted a commutation in 1987. In prison, Williams has participated in various programs, including the prison’s ministry, drama club, and toastmasters. She also counseled and mentored younger women, earning her the affectionate nickname “Mama Glo.” 

“The skills that my mom had, the way that she worked with women, the way that she was able to work with women that they [prison officials] had problems with and redirect their thinking and behaviors, they came out being a better person,” Williams’s oldest daughter, Dean Marie Robertson-Guidry, told The Appeal.

This included Conseula Gaines, who was 23 years old when she was imprisoned after using a sawed-off shotgun to help her boyfriend escape custody. Willams became like a mother figure to her, encouraging the young woman to redirect her passion and energy into helping others. “Don’t allow this place to swallow you,” Gaines remembered the older woman counseling her. In 2016, Gaines was released from prison and became an organizer with Voice of The Experienced (VOTE), advocating for restoring formerly incarcerated people’s right to vote. She wishes that Williams would also have the same chance of release.

Before her hospitalization, Williams was housed at the Elayn Hunt Correctional Center, a men’s prison which began housing incarcerated women after the women’s prison was flooded in 2016. It is also the prison where women in local jails or state prison are sent if they test positive for COVID-19. (The DOC reports six confirmed cases of COVID-19 at Hunt, although women inside the prison insist that the number is higher.)

Williams lived in a dormitory. No doors or walls separated her from the dozens of women in other bunks. Gaines, who keeps in touch with women imprisoned at Hunt, notes that the phones and e-messaging kiosks are clustered together less than six feet apart. 

“Mama Glo was an older person, clearly at risk, and from what we can tell, [there were] no special provisions for social distancing or efforts to keep her more isolated or provide her with extra care or consideration. That’s something we’ve seen system-wide,” said Montagnes, who noted that the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola, which houses the aging and infirm people, is where people with COVID-19 are being sent.  

For Williams’s family, the diagnosis is devastating. “We were at the last step, this was the final step,” said Robertson-Guidry. She last saw her mother at the July commutation hearing in Baker, Louisiana. 

“I was able to give her a hug, sit up right beside her like a baby chick,” she recalled. After the board’s unanimous recommendation, Robertson-Guidry hadn’t made the drive from her home in Texas to Louisiana for further visits, assuming that the governor would soon approve the commutation. Instead, she and her husband decorated and furnished two bedrooms for her mother to choose. When COVID-19 began spreading in the prisons, she hoped the governor would finally sign the papers allowing her mother to come home. Now, she says, “it’s just a big question mark.”

Fox Rich, who met Williams during her own incarceration and, with Participatory Defense-NOLA and its Clemency Works campaign, has been advocating for Williams’s release, finds the governor’s delay, particularly with the spread of COVID-19 in prison, “a grave injustice.” She and her husband Rob, who received clemency from Edwards in 2018, had been in the midst of creating video interviews with Williams’s family members before COVID-19 spread across the country. Now, they have been writing and calling the governor and other state officials to push for Williams’s release.    

Williams’s commutation, as recommended, renders her immediately eligible for parole. The governor has the power to change those terms and order her immediate release from custody. While Williams would remain at the hospital, the governor’s action would allow her family access to communication and information. As a prisoner, Montagnes explained, Williams is not allowed to call her family; they cannot call the hospital for information about her treatment or condition. 

Montagnes also noted that the DOC could grant Williams a temporary release, which would allow her family that same access (though would continue to require that Wililams have a security escort throughout her hospitalization). 

Governor Edwards’s office has not responded to questions as to whether he intends to sign Williams’s commutation.