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Louisiana Women Incarcerated for Defending Themselves Against Abusive Partners Seek Clemency Amid COVID-19 Pandemic

The state has recommended the release of 10 women at a coronavirus-ravaged prison—but Governor John Bel Edwards still hasn’t signed the paperwork.

Louisiana Governor John Bel EdwardsPhoto illustration by Kat Wawrykow. Photo from Getty.

Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards could release Edna Gibson from a coronavirus-ravaged prison with the stroke of his pen.

On Sept. 5, 1986, Gibson and her husband, Louis, were having drinks at a bar in Kenner, a New Orleans suburb, when they got into an argument. Because Gibson had hit Louis with a lamp earlier that day to prevent him from choking her, she hid a knife in her bra. Gibson said that when she asked to leave the bar, Louis hit her in the parking lot.

Gibson then stabbed Louis in the chest, and he was taken to Charity Hospital in New Orleans where he succumbed to his injuries. Gibson was arrested soon after Louis died.

Gibson asserted self-defense at trial, but was convicted of second-degree murder in a non-unanimous jury verdict and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. Until recently, Louisiana and Oregon were the only states that allowed split-jury verdicts—then, in 2018, Louisiana voters abolished the practice. In April, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Ramos v. Louisiana that split-decision convictions for serious crimes in state court violate the U.S. Constitution. The ruling could potentially vacate thousands of convictions in Oregon and Louisiana; on May 12, the Oregon Department of Justice suggested tossing at least 269 convictions in that state.

In August 2019, the Louisiana Board of Pardons and Parole recommended a commutation of Gibson’s sentence. The board’s recommendation is awaiting a signature from Governor Edwards. As coronavirus sweeps through Louisiana’s prison system, at least 10 women serving long or life-sentences at the Louisiana Correctional Institute for Women (LCIW) are still awaiting the governor’s signature on their commutation recommendations. Many of the women were convicted of killing an abusive partner or committing a crime while acting under an abuser’s coercion.  

In a March 27 letter, 13 professors and doctors from Tulane and Louisiana State Universities urged Edwards to immediately commute the sentences of all elderly and medically vulnerable people in state custody. 

In April, Edwards commuted the sentence of Sabrina Parks, who has served nearly 40 years of a life sentence for second-degree murder. Parks, now 63,  has long maintained that she killed her husband after he abused her for years. Edwards’s commutation only came in April, after the pandemic hit the state’s prison system. As of the end of April, Edwards commuted just 16 percent of the 200-plus cases the Board of Pardons and Parole  sent to him. In recent weeks, Edwards also commuted the sentences of Sandra Starr and Gloria Gates; Starr had been serving a life-without-parole sentence after fatally shooting an abusive partner who’d been strangling her. But Parks, Starr and Gates  are still incarcerated as they await parole hearings.

“The COVID situation has amplified that, in many cases, these are women who shouldn’t have been incarcerated at all,” Katherine Mattes, co-director of the Women’s Prison Project at Tulane Law School in New Orleans, told The Appeal. “And now they are trapped in a situation that makes them more vulnerable to this pandemic.”

Edwards’s office did not respond to multiple requests for comment for this article, but last week spokesperson Christina Stephens told The Appeal that the governor is “actively pursuing all methods of reducing the prison population during the COVID-19 pandemic, including accelerated consideration of pending clemency applications for inmates with comorbidities.” Stephens added that Edwards does not know “whether he will grant or deny any of the recommendations pending before him until he has had time to thoughtfully consider them.” 

The state, however, has temporarily suspended new commutation hearings amid the pandemic.

As women like Gibson await a decision from Edwards, the virus is spreading rapidly in Louisiana’s two main women’s facilities. In 2016, the state shuttered LCIW because of flooding and now mostly houses the women in two different facilities: the former Jetson Center for Youth and the Elayn Hunt Correctional Center. In April, the state mass-tested every woman incarcerated at Hunt and found that approximately 85 percent of them were infected with coronavirus. As of May 19, 165 women at Hunt have tested positive for the virus, but only 39 are symptomatic. Another 82 women at Jetson have tested positive, though only 68 have shown symptoms.

Mattes told The Appeal that when she first visited the old LCIW facility years ago, she was stunned at the number of women who told her that their cases were connected to domestic abuse. 

“I asked them, ‘How many of you are here because you were victims of domestic partner violence — either as a direct cause of why you’re here, or it’s why you engaged in conduct that led you here?’” Mattes said. “I was surprised at how many hands shot up.” She estimated it was three-quarters of the room.

Mattes and the Project’s co-director, Becki Kondkar, now work to help free incarcerated domestic abuse survivors. Mattes and Kondkar told The Appeal that a significant portion of the women currently locked up in Louisiana were prosecuted for “survival crimes,” including committing robberies because abusive partners had stolen money from them—and killing abusers in self-defense. 

“These women are essentially being held hostage” by their abusers, Kondkar said.

Kondkar’s husband, Loyola University criminologist Marcus Kondkar, has been interviewing people imprisoned in Louisiana facilities since 2017 and cataloging their stories. He told The Appeal that he’s interviewed 55 women serving long or life sentences at LCIW; of the 55, 15 were imprisoned for crimes directly in response to abuse, such as killing an abuser. Another 40 percent of the women he interviewed were involved in crimes planned or carried out by other men.

“Most of these women are kept in dormitories with just two and a half feet between beds,” he said. “I just got a message today from someone in there—the quote was that they are ‘dropping like flies.’”

Criminalized survivors like Gibson are finally finding some relief in the criminal legal system. In March 2019, New Orleans judge Arthur Hunter acquitted Catina Curley of second-degree murder in the 2005 killing of her husband Renaldo, finding “overwhelming evidence” demonstrated that the crime was the outcome of years of abuse Curley suffered at his hands. “When, as a community, do we develop a comprehensive holistic plan and commit the resources to address domestic violence?” Hunter wrote in his opinion. “When, as a community, do we do what is necessary to avoid the next Renaldo Curley and the next Catina Curley?”

As The Appeal previously reported, in July 2019, the Louisiana Board of Pardons gave Gloria “Mama Glo” Williams, the state’s longest-serving female prisoner, a favorable recommendation for commutation. Williams has served more than 50 years in prison for her role in a robbery in which one of her accomplices shot and killed a store clerk. At the time of the offense in the early 1970s, Williams was a 25-year-old mother of five who was living with an abusive husband who’d shot her with heroin, fired a gun at her, and hired a man to kidnap her and beat her after she once attempted to flee from him. After her husband was arrested for a separate armed robbery, he demanded that she find money to pay his legal bills. A few months later, she participated in the crime that led to her incarceration. In late April, the now 74 year-old Williams was hospitalized with COVID-19. 

Last week, Williams’s family told The Appeal that she was transferred back to LCIW-Hunt on May 9 after a stint in an intensive-care unit. She remains on supplemental oxygen inside the prison. Like Gibson, she awaits Edwards’s signature on her commutation recommendation.

Louisiana is far from the only state where incarcerated victims of domestic abuse are seeking mercy during the pandemic. On April 14, Carol Jacobsen, director of the University of Michigan’s Women’s Justice and Clemency Project, said that two of her clients imprisoned after acting in self-defense died of COVID-19 at Michigan’s Women’s Huron Valley Correctional Facility. 

Colby Lenz, co-founder of Survived and Punished, an advocacy group that fights to prevent the criminal legal system from imprisoning people who were defending themselves from an attacker or abuser, told The Appeal that there is no excuse for governors to drag their feet on sentence commutations during the pandemic. 

It’s just absurd,” she said. “Many of the survivors we’re working with out here are people who’ve done decades in prison. Many are now people who run most of the programming inside the prisons. Even prison administrators themselves are recommending their release for the amazing contributions they’ve made. But these states just can’t seem to push the papers to sign for their release.”

Now, as the pandemic endangers incarcerated people nationwide, advocates for imprisoned survivors of domestic abuse say that, in the long term, states need to revamp their self-defense laws to account for women who defend themselves from abusers. In the short term, advocates like Mattes and Kondkar said they’d like to see Edwards set up a panel to make quick decisions about who can “safely be released from prison before contracting COVID-19.”

“The question in terms of clemency usually, is ‘Is this person rehabilitated?’” Becki Kondkar said. “But in this case, the question is different. The question is, ‘Were they ever really a risk to others at all?’”