“I’ve seen a male officer punch a handcuffed woman in the face. I’ve seen one slam an inmate’s arm in a door. They can do anything they want to because they know they can get away with it,” said Gloria Killian, former inmate of California Institute for Women, sentenced to 15 to life. After an anonymous tip that implicated Killian with the 1981 murder and robbery of a coin dealer, she subsequently spent more than 16 years in prison for a crime she did not commit, narrowly evading the death penalty by a technicality of law.
Gloria claims there is a definite dichotomy between who is in control and who is not at CIW. No cameras. No one watching. The women are either cast into the role of servant or jezebel. Either way, it’s a position of powerlessness. Used. They prey on the mentally ill, the weak. They can tack on more time. They take personal property. Bullies. And they do it because they can. “The officers feel you’ve lost all your rights, including your personal rights. They misuse regulations. They’re sexually abusive. They play control games… There was this one officer who had a racquetball he used to bounce constantly. He would bounce it throughout the entire night of his shift walking up and down the corridors… he ended up getting fired for hitting his wife in the parking lot….I sometimes still hear that echo. ”
Thursday night. Visiting night at CIW. The sally port opened one last time for Gloria. As she walked through the gate into her long awaited freedom, a crowd of onlookers laced the chain linked fence. Their fingers gripped through the crisscrossed metal as they jumped and cheered for her release. Joyce Ride, a woman who spent over $100,000 of her own money to get Gloria out of prison, had been looking forward to this moment almost as much as Gloria. After living in a controlled environment where touching others is prohibited, the freed prisoner was finally embraced. Again and again. There were wet eyes. Thankfulness. Triumph. A celebration that will not soon be forgotten. Gloria got back what was wrongfully taken from her: her freedom. But, after 16 years in prison, newfound freedom harbors challenging limitations.
The obvious boundary to overcome coming straight from prison is finding a job. No one wants to hire an ex-con. Not checking the criminal record box on the application is a criminal offense. Even in Gloria’s case, where she was unjustly imprisoned, there is apprehensiveness and doubt. People fear that she did it; that she got away with it. Most people have no idea what exonerated means. More problematically, Gloria was released from prison, but not exonerated, meaning a judge did not issue her a statement of innocence. So, her felonious record is still intact, rather than being expunged. When Gloria was in her early 30s, right before she was accused with murder, she was in law school. Now, she has little hope of fulfilling that goal since California law prohibits felons from obtaining any kind of professional license.
Moreover, Gloria had a good number of years to catch up on. In the early 80s, before she went in, there was no email. No internet. Computers stored information on a 5.25 floppy. No CDs. No cell phones. People wore different clothes, styled their hair differently. “It was like being in a foreign country with a big X on your back.” Most inmates receive $200, a t-shirt and a pair of pants with their release. She wore pants everyday for over 16 years. When she got out, it took her a long time before she would wear them again. “The readjustment to the free world is not as easy as one might think…we all struggle.”
However, Gloria was lucky. She had a place to live when she was released. Joyce has opened her house to Gloria infinitely. As a seasoned activist for women in prison, Joyce recruited Gloria as her new ‘partner in crime.’ With her help, Killian has founded the Action Committee for Women in Prison, whose mission is to “advocate for the humane and compassionate treatment of all incarcerated women everywhere.” The committee works toward the goal of developing restorative justice to all parties who are impacted by the criminal justice system and promotes the respectful and dignified treatment of those imprisoned. Women have rights even when they are imprisoned. “I refuse to leave my sisters in prison behind. This is for them.” She also appears regularly on the Montel Williams Show, promoting the release of wrongly accused prisoners and stays active in community awareness. The next meeting of the ACWIP will be a fundraiser on Saturday, October 28, featuring a silent auction of art, jewelry and handmade crafts from women in prison at 418 Bamboo Lane, Los Angeles, 90012 from 4-7 pm.
There are nights when Gloria falls asleep only to wake up to her whole body jumping up in a panic. There is a certain fear in facing death. But, there is a whole other fear knowing that the state is going to murder you. It never escapes you. You become a prisoner for life even when you are released. “I try not to focus on blame. It just makes you bitter… If I just walk away, it means they won. I can’t let them win.”
“One of the most touching things that happened to me was a man came up to me, looked me in the eye and said I’m sorry” said Gloria, “That meant a lot. He was taking responsibility for what the state did to me, and all of us hold some kind of responsibility. We’re all to blame. To say you’re sorry is really an accurate statement, because you have to remember, it was the People of the State of California v. Gloria Killian, not just the state.
You’ve had a few glasses of wine at dinner. You’re driving home when you see those flashing lights in your rearview. The officer approaches your window and asks if you’ve been drinking. You say you’ve had a few glasses of wine. He puts a machine in your face and tells you to blow. Do you have a right to refuse?