Under gray skies so dense they seemed impermeable, Gloria Williams was escorted out of the custody of Louisiana’s Department of Public Safety & Corrections on Jan. 25, 2022. At age 76, the longest-held female prisoner in Louisiana and the last living female 10/6 lifer was paroled after 51 years. 

Williams, better known as “Mama Glo,” was leaving a lot of friends behind, in flesh and in spirit, including Mary Turner, a sister lifer who’d died in 2017 shortly before her scheduled release. Turner motivated her. Only 16 years old when charged, Williams’ co-defendant Carolyn Hollingsworth, who died inside 15 years ago, also motivated her. 

Williams clutched a manila envelope stuffed with papers, cards, and photos in one hand, and a small sack nearly filled with amber plastic bottles of pills in the other. The guard walking with her carried a compact, rolled canvas tote and a single white plastic garbage bag containing all of her worldly possessions, accumulated over five decades.

Williams had been preparing for her release for 918 days, ever since July 22, 2019, when she’d received the Louisiana Board of Pardons & Parole’s 5-0 vote of confidence. During that two-and-a-half-year limbo she caught COVID twice and almost didn’t make it back from the ICU. Double pneumonia has taken its toll. Her overall health is diminished, and she requires oxygen most evenings.

Mary Smith-Moore, her younger sister who’d come from Houston with Williams’ sons James and Darrell to collect her, said she didn’t think any of this was going to be easy for her. “The family will help her through.” 

Williams clutched a manila envelope stuffed with papers, cards, and photos in one hand, and a small sack nearly filled with amber plastic bottles of pills in the other. The guard walking with her carried a compact, rolled canvas tote and a single white plastic garbage bag containing all of her worldly possessions, accumulated over five decades. 

Her feet were so swollen, her gait so unsure, that just putting one foot in front of the other to get off of prison property seemed a minor miracle. Well-wishers awaiting her at the prison exit shouted their support: “Yaaas, baby! Walk, girl.” From alpha to omega, Mama Glo’s incarceration story, which has spanned 10 US presidencies, was bookended by monstrous thefts. 918 days snatched at the end, tens of thousands of days lost overall. She’d done her sentence, times five. “Waaaaalk!”

Mama Glo leaving prison after over half a century of incarceration on Jan. 25, 2022. Photo Credit: Frances Madeson

Before her fate was swept up like so much detritus in the radical reforms to the state’s criminal code in the post-Jim Crow period, Williams had reason for hope. When she was convicted in 1971 by an all-white jury and sentenced to life, she was certain she’d be doing ten years and six months—and, with good behavior, would be eligible for parole. It had been that way since 1925. But state lawmakers revoked the possibility of parole in a well-plotted bait and switch. Without a pardon from the governor, life meant life. All of it.

Before there was Mama Glo

In 1971, Williams was under the influence of a second husband who’d exposed her to heroin. This, according to her younger sister, was her undoing.

“He took her to a dark place; he took her down,” Smith-Moore told The Real News just before the Pardons & Parole Board’s final Zoom hearing on the matter of her sister’s release. Williams was convicted of second-degree murder after what was supposed to be a dramatically staged robbery at a grocery store, including one fake and one unloaded gun, turned into a fatal scuffle with the grocery store owner, Budge Cutrera. “That wasn’t who she was.” 

Much like the lives of those who were swallowed into the carceral abyss as a result of a failed and racist 50-year ‘war on drugs,’ Mama Glo’s incarceration has written into it a dark history of white power exerted through the criminal justice system.

One of 12 siblings, Smith-Moore used to visit her older sister every summer back when she was with her first husband. “The house was immaculate, the clothes were washed, the food was cooked when her husband got home,” she recalled. “She was a country girl, a housewife, a mother.”

Much like the lives of those who were swallowed into the carceral abyss as a result of a failed and racist 50-year ‘war on drugs,’ Mama Glo’s incarceration has written into it a dark history of white power exerted through the criminal justice system. Throughout the South, around the time Williams was sentenced, those with the power to rewrite society’s rules to maintain their material advantages—advantages that were temporarily threatened by the legal termination of Jim Crow—were doing just that. And Baton Rouge was no exception. Lawmakers (and the people they listened to) were especially focused on the criminal code.

They whittled away at parole laws in 1973, in 1976, and they revoked the practice altogether in 1979. For the many Black men who were completely innocent of any crime but had entered into plea agreements as an alternative to worse outcomes meted out by racist juries, there was no way out. The same would be true for Williams and her co-defendants. They were the collateral damage of a state asymmetrically warring against its own captured citizens.

Waiting for the hearing to start, Darrell Robertson, Mama Glo’s youngest son, was not yet two years old when his mother was incarcerated for life in 1971. Photo taken on Jan. 25, 2022, by Frances Madeson.

In the context of the convict exemption in the 13th Amendment of the US Constitution, lengthier sentences are simply good business, more bang for the buck: the longer a person can be held, the more the state agencies and corporations that contract prison labor benefit in reduced training costs for a stable, skilled, and captive workforce.

In Louisiana, as Michael Sainato recently reported for The Real News, “[i]n fiscal year 2021, private corporations spent $2,997,984.68 on contracts leasing prison labor, and the state prison labor system reports more than $29 million in operational sales (for example, the sale of agricultural products or livestock raised by state prisoners).” 

The state itself uses prison labor. As Julia O’Donoghue reported in 2018, “Under current law, with the governor’s permission, state inmates are allowed to do custodial work on state grounds and at state facilities. Inmates are regularly used to clean, cook and do gardening work at the state Capitol, governor’s mansion and several office buildings in Baton Rouge.” 

Sometimes governors grow fond of their servants and reward them with commutation, as was the case with Williams’ other co-defendant, Philip Anthony “Pee-Wee” Harris. He was put to work in the governor’s mansion as a cook for Governor Edwin Edwards, who pardoned him in May 1977.

But gubernatorial commutations are dispensed annually in the dozens, not hundreds or thousands. And as Louisianans subjected to draconian sentences then grow old and sick now, the state faces a moral catastrophe.

Thats when she started escaping

For Williams—who didn’t have a lot of schooling as a youngster, got married at 14, and was a mother of five small children at the time she was sent to Louisiana Correctional Institute for Women (LCIW)—the impossibility of parole induced a panic so intense that she accomplished what few women in Louisiana penal history have ever attempted: she escaped twice in 1973, and attempted again on Independence Day, 1985, until the impulse to try was quite literally tortured out of her with a long stint in solitary.

Her escapes were recounted in the February/March 1995 issue of The Angolite, a newspaper started in 1953 at Louisiana’s largest prison. 

“Back then I didn’t know any other way,” she told them. “I just wanted to be free.”

In May 1973, she walked away from guards at Charity Hospital in New Orleans and made it out to Los Angeles, but after about six weeks her brother-in-law turned her in for a small reward. In August of the same year she cut through the prison fence with a wire cutter, again got out to Los Angeles, then traveled with her second husband to Houston, where they were arrested for robbery; she spent eight years in prison in Texas before being returned to LCIW in 1982. In her last attempt, on July 4, 1985, she slugged a guard with a sock full of billiard balls and tried to walk through the lobby, but “[g]uards subdued her before she made it out the front door.”

“Back then I didn’t know any other way,” she told them. “I just wanted to be free.”

The year after Williams was released from solitary confinement, Kathy Randels founded the LCIW Drama Club. One of very few secular enrichment program available in the prison, the club meets weekly every Saturday and, barring lockdowns at the prison, did so continuously since 1996, until COVID forced a hiatus.

James Robertson, Mama Glo’s eldest son, and Mary Smith-Moore, her younger sister, reacting to the news that Mama Glo would be released after 51 years. Photo taken on Jan. 25, 2022, by Frances Madeson.

Mama Glo joined the group a couple of years later. Randels remembers that, from the beginning, she went deep in the work and pulled no punches. But the first piece where she “really connected to the power of performance” was when her mother died.

“She was not able to be present at the death or the funeral, and she put all of that in her piece,” Randels recalls. Williams’ mother had raised three of her five children, taking them in when her last three teenagers were still at home. Baby Darrell was just one year old. Her debt to her mother was infinite, and to not be allowed to be there by her dying mother’s side to comfort or honor her brought infinite sorrow. “She went through it in front of us.”

Afterwards a young woman told the club, “Y’all sacrifice your lives and stories for the rest of us to learn something.”

“There’s no place you can go where love can’t find you.”

Ausuetta AmorAmenkum, Randels’ partner in the LCIW Drama Club

Ausuetta AmorAmenkum, Randels’ partner in the LCIW Drama Club since 2000, says she’s never felt it to be a sacrifice.

“They give me that sense of knowing that there’s no place you can go where love can’t find you.”

They’re not supposed to touch the women, but “we always hug them”; they’re not supposed to talk about any outside stuff, but “we always talk about our lives,” AmorAmenkum said.

Mama Glo told her one day, “When y’all tell us about the outside, we go with you.”

Bonds unbroken

“Sister, my sister,” Williams called out to Mary Smith-Moore as she stepped shakily past the prison gate. 

Since the sisters were last physically together, Williams’ youngest daughter, oldest grandson, their brother, a sister, two nieces, and a nephew had all died, and Smith-Moore buried her husband just days prior.

The women embraced for the first time in two and a half years and held on tight. Even as Williams took her first steps of freedom, there was a palpable sense of disbelief among those gathered at the gate. Given the carceral system’s caprice and the relative powerlessness of those held captive within it, nothing was guaranteed. (75-year-old Bobby Sneed, for instance, was held nine months past his release date on flimsy grounds after being locked up in Angola Prison for 47 years. He finally got out in January.)

Looking into each other’s eyes, they were counting blessings and losses, especially of kin: since the sisters were last physically together, Williams’ youngest daughter, oldest grandson, their brother, a sister, two nieces, and a nephew had all died, and Smith-Moore buried her husband just days prior. 

“That’s who we are,” Smith-Moore said about their family’s ability to meet this moment together, to carry her elder sister out of Louisiana to safety despite so much fresh grief. “We came from a very strong foundation.”

That day’s parole hearing, billed in advance by some familiar with the process as a near formality, was nothing of the sort. The hearing was painful and draining, especially for the shock it delivered to the victim’s family.

Budge Cutrera, the 64-year-old Italian-American grocer killed by shots fired with his own gun, which he had raised in defense during the 1971 stickup, was supposed to retire a few weeks after the robbery took place. How could he have known that the pistol Williams was holding was her son’s toy, or that the rifle wrapped in a coat and held by Harris wasn’t loaded? Hollingsworth struggled with him over the gun and three shots did their worst. 

Though Williams’ finger wasn’t on the trigger, Mr. Cutrera’s son and two grandchildren opposed Williams’ release. What tore them up the most was that in all this time she had never expressed any remorse to them. What they didn’t know was that she has always been strictly prohibited upon punishment by law from contacting them—for any reason. They learned that for the first time in the hearing.

“No one ever told them ‘that’s never going to happen,’” Katie Hunter-Lowrey, crime-survivor organizer at The Promise of Justice Initiative in New Orleans, said after the hearing. “Both the unforgiven and the unforgiving suffer,” she explained. “They’ve been waiting all these years for something that could have been healing, but that the criminal legal system prevents from happening.”

In Louisiana there are mechanisms that could’ve brought the Cutreras the kind of healing they were deprived of. For instance, they could have had a mediated sit-down. “But,” Hunter-Lowrey says, “the system doesn’t inform people. We don’t have a state budget that reflects a society that cares about healing or what happens to survivors of violence. Which is why the cycles are repeated.”

Kathy Randels, J. Menhati Singleton, and Ausuetta AmorAmenkum of the LCIW Drama Club wait for Mama Glo, who’d participated in the club for over 20 years. Photo taken on Jan. 25, 2022, by Frances Madeson.

In a criminal legal system where the state prosecutes crimes against itself, neither the needs of the people who have been hurt or those who have perpetuated the harm are centered.

“Incarcerated people have also experienced violence and lost family members to violence, and that’s not really taken into consideration,” she explained. “But it should be.”

Smith-Moore said she felt for the Cutrera family. Though she hadn’t shopped there, she knew of their grocery store in Opelousas and who they were, and had grieved for the senseless loss of Budge Cutrera when it happened.

“We all did,” she said.

Gubenatorial clemency is not going to cut it

Kerry Myers, deputy director of Louisiana Parole Project, which provided legal and wraparound service to Mama Glo, says they’re working to bring the remaining 55 10/6 lifers home alive. 

That’s the first tranche; then they want all lifers who’ve served 20 years or more to be given another look—and there are thousands of them. 

The data shows that there’s no public policy imperative to keep them incarcerated, but the only way out by law is the commutation process. But that’s exclusively under the office of the governor’s control. In the simplest and most practical terms, the process has been outstripped by the enormous need, and it does not and probably cannot work fast enough to stave off a humanitarian crisis.

“By virtue of executive function, he is not bound by any timeframe,” Myers explained.

Participatory Defense Movement NOLA hosts Mama Glo’s family and supporters at the Wildmark Hotel in Baton Rouge to watch via Zoom the Louisiana Board of Pardons and Paroles’ final confirmation of Mama Glo’s release. Photo taken on Jan. 25, 2022, by Frances Madeson.

Governor John Bel Edwards could’ve prioritized signing all commutations as they came over one by one from the Pardons & Parole Board, especially during the pandemic. Or he could have taken action on May 8, 2020, when 150 signatories including Myer’s own organization, respectfully begged him to let Mama Glo (and 144 others) go with a stroke of his pen. This was near the beginning of the coronavirus (which rages still throughout Louisiana’s prisons). Or, because it’s totally within his office’s discretion, he need never act.

LPP is advocating for legislation to be introduced in the upcoming March 2022 legislative session. 

With over 2,500 lifers over 60 years old, a full 5% of the state’s prison population, the state needs to start moving a lot of people through the system a lot more quickly.

“We’re so glad Mama Glo got to go home,” Myers said. “But we were way past the point in her sentence that her continued incarceration did anything to serve public safety. Keeping her locked up was a waste.”

Frances Madeson

Frances Madeson writes about liberation struggles and the arts that inspire them. She is the author of the comic political novel Cooperative Village. Follow her on Twitter @FrancesMadeson.