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Gloria Williams, now 73.

Decades before she became known as "Mama Glo" at Louisiana's women's prison for her mentorship of young and often wayward inmates, Gloria Williams escaped from her lifelong incarceration three times, and attempted at least once more. 

But now, for the first time after almost 50 years behind bars and a transformation described as exemplary, Williams — Louisiana's longest serving female prisoner — has been granted the first step toward her true, and legal, freedom. 

The Louisiana Board of Pardons on Monday gave Williams, now 73, a favorable recommendation to amend her 1971 life sentence for second-degree murder by giving her parole eligibility. That recommendation will move to the governor's desk for review, only effective with his signature.

“Gloria is so deserving of this opportunity to return home to her family after 50 years, and she’s so grateful," said Amanda Zarrow, her attorney. "Gloria has dedicated so much of her life to mentoring and lifting up the women around her. She calls them her children and they call her 'Mama Glo.' … She grew into her role as a mentor and mother figure.”

At the last of five votes to recommend her commuted sentence, Williams covered her face with her hands, then lifted her arms up toward the sky. She had tears in her eyes as her dozens of family members, most who traveled from Houston, embraced her. 

“I turned my life around for others and for my children,” Williams told the pardon board through the video stream from the women's prison.  

Williams was convicted in 1971, along with two co-defendants, for the 1971 killing of an Opelousas grocer, 64-year-old Budge Cutrera Sr. Officials said Williams and friends entered Cutrera's store with an unloaded gun and knife, planning to rob the store, according to newspaper articles from the time. Once inside, they struggled with both Cutrera and his wife, eventually shooting Cutrera to death with his own pistol.

Williams was sentenced months later to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

In the next three years, Williams escaped three times, once making it to Houston, where she was arrested on an unrelated armed robbery. She served about eight years in prison in Texas for that crime before returning to Louisiana to resume her life sentence. In 1985, Louisiana officials say, she attempted to escape once more, injuring a correctional officer in the process, but not making it very far past the prison's gate. She was convicted of simple escape. 

But since then, Zarrow said, Williams made a conscious decision to change her life, taking younger women prisoners under her wing. Zarrow also said Williams has successfully overcome a drug problem.

She went before the Pardon Board once before, in 1992, but was turned down. She has not had a single write-up in prison since 2007. 

“She has a very colorful past," said Louisiana Correctional Institute for Women (LCIW) Warden Frederick Boutte. "Her phases of life have changed for the positive. She’s a pillar for the community (here).”

Williams' sister and son also spoke at the hearing, explaining that their relationships with Williams over the past decades have only grown stronger. Both offered to support her upon a potential release from prison. 

"She holds herself accountable," her son, James Robertson, said in an emotional testimony. "She’s a shining star that I will never be able to not see. … I’m going to be there for her."

Pardon board members said one of Cutrera's son's had opposed Williams receiving any clemency in the case, as had law enforcement and prosecutors in St. Landry Parish and Opelousas. None, however, were present at Monday's hearing. Calls to Cutrera's family members from a reporter were not answered or returned Monday.  

A spokeswoman for Gov. John Bel Edwards said Monday afternoon that the governor had not yet seen the recommendation from the pardon board, and therefore had not had time to review it. If the governor decides to sign the board's recommendation, Williams would still have to go before a parole committee to be granted a supervised release. Williams would then remain on parole supervision for the rest of her life. 

State Rep. Pat Smith, a Democrat from Baton Rouge who has become a champion for women in prison, spoke Monday morning at the hearing. Smith said she is going to encourage the governor to approve the sentence commutation recommendation for Williams. 

“She’s the longest-serving woman at LCIW," Smith said. "She’s what you would say is rehabilitated."

Pardon board member Alvin Roche Jr. praised Williams for helping mentor women out of solitary and segregation cells.  

“I can see your rehabilitation, I can see your leadership," Roche said. All five members of the board voted to grant her commuted sentence. 

“She has truly been reformed," said Williams' younger sister Mary Smith-Moore. "She’s expressed sorrow so many times over the years. … We haven’t given up on her.”

Former prisoner and now criminal justice activist Fox Rich said Williams made a difference during her incarceration, and Fox said she knows Williams can do the same in free society if the governor gives her the opportunity. 

“With a family like this you can’t be stopped, we won’t be stopped," Rich said. “Every person at the women’s prison had a strong regard for 'Mama Glo.' … She mentored whoever entered those doors. … Now she can go home and mother her children.”

Email Grace Toohey at gtoohey@theadvocate.com.