Louisiana’s Longest-Serving Incarcerated Woman Returned To Prison After Being Hospitalized For COVID-19
The family of Gloria Williams, who has served 50 years in prison, is now pressing Governor John Bel Edwards to commute her sentence 10 months after a parole board recommended she be freed.
Gloria Williams, Louisiana’s longest-serving incarcerated woman, has been transferred from a hospital back to prison, where she remains on supplemental oxygen while recovering from COVID-19, her family told The Appeal.
In January, Williams began complaining to family members about a dry, persistent cough that she could not shake. By April, she had developed bilateral pneumonia and was taken to Our Lady of the Lake Regional Medical Center in Baton Rouge. There, she was diagnosed with COVID-19 and placed in the Intensive Care Unit.
Because Williams was still classified as a prisoner while she was hospitalized, her family was unable to call and speak with her. They also had difficulty obtaining information from medical staff. They did learn that on May 6, Williams was transferred from the ICU to another hospital unit; three days later, on May 9, she was returned to the Louisiana Correctional Institute for Women at Hunt.
In 1971, Williams 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. During a struggle with the store’s owner, Budge Cutrera, Williams’s teenage co-defendant found a gun Cutrera kept behind the counter and fatally shot the store owner. Nine months later, all three were sentenced to life without parole. Williams has served nearly 50 years in prison.
In July 2019, the Louisiana Board of Pardons and Parole unanimously recommended that Governor John Bel Edwards commute her life without parole sentence to make her immediately eligible for parole. But that recommendation has sat on the governor’s desk for the past 10 months without action.
According to the Department of Corrections, 165 of LCIW-Hunt’s women have tested positive for COVID-19. (As of December 26, LCIW-Hunt incarcerated 213 women. The DOC did not respond to requests for updated figures.) The prison has also had two COVID-19-related deaths. That makes Williams’s family and her attorney, Mercedes Montagnes of the Promise of Justice Initiative, concerned about whether she will be able to obtain medical care and monitoring. “What we know about COVID-19 is that it’s not a completely linear disease,” Montagnes told The Appeal on Monday. “People decompensate at different times.”
Consuela Gaines, an organizer with VOTE, is in contact with several women at LCIW-Hunt, who reported that only 33 women tested negative for COVID-19. Those 33 women are housed in a separate dormitory. The DOC did not respond to The Appeal’s questions about medical care for COVID-19 patients in custody or its efforts to ensure that the women who tested negative do not contract the novel coronavirus.
Williams’s family and advocates are pressing Edwards to approve her commutation and release others from Louisiana’s prisons to prevent further COVID-19 spread. Advocates with VOTE and Participatory Defense Movement NOLA have sent letters to the governor and the DOC urging them to consider releasing aging people with preexisting medical conditions as well as people who have six to 12 months left on their sentence. They also organized a prayer vigil outside the women’s prison in Jetson and are planning another prayer vigil outside the women’s prison at Hunt.
In an email to The Appeal, Christina Stephens, Governor Edwards’s spokesperson, wrote, “Gloria Williams’ clemency application and recommendation is still pending before the Governor and has not yet been considered. We don’t know whether he will grant or deny any of the recommendations pending before him until he has had time to thoughtfully consider them. Governor Edwards has been focused on the COVID-19 response in Louisiana. 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.”
Williams’s sister, Mary Smith, hopes that Edwards will sign her commutation. “This is a mother who has done 50 long years for being in a situation with a toy gun,” she told The Appeal. She recognizes that her sister’s participation led to a person’s death; she also notes that, in those 50 years, her sister has changed and is now a grandmother and great-grandmother to an extended family that wants her home.