One of every 11 persons in prison is now serving a life sentence. A quarter of this population of 130,000 is serving life without parole. While many of these individuals have committed serious violent crimes, unfortunately, many others are serving life sentences for drug crimes, or like Gladys Wilson, for aiding more serious offenders.
Gladys Wilson's story is a poignant example of the ways in which unfair changes in sentencing policies and stringent parole board policies of “life means life,” keep hundreds unjustly imprisoned-- their lives indefinitely put on hold.
In 1978, Gladys pled guilty to aiding and abetting an armed robbery in Michigan, her first offense. She was a 31-year- old mother of an 11-year old girl and had worked at the same company for ten years. Her crime had involved driving and picking up her husband at a grocery store that she knew he had planned to rob. When Gladys returned for her husband, she learned that he had killed the store's manager. Her husband is currently serving a mandatory life sentence.
Gladys had no prior criminal record and because she offered to assist the prosecution’s case against her husband, she was allowed to plead guilty to aiding and abetting robbery instead of the initial charge of aiding and abetting murder. She was sentenced to life in prison with the assumption by everyone involved in the case that she would serve no more than 10 years.
However, 27 years later, Gladys was still incarcerated and had been twice denied release by the parole board. In 1986, in anticipation of parole release after serving 10 years, Gladys was moved to a minimum custody prison. However, action by the parole board was delayed until 1992, by which time a newly adopted policy of "life means life" resulted in denial of parole. In 2003, despite a letter from the successor of her sentencing judge, urging her release, Gladys was again denied parole.
In December 2005, after 27 years, Gladys was finally released. She was 58 years old. Under current Michigan sentencing guidelines, her offense today would have resulted in a sentence of 9-15 years.
While in prison, Gladys earned 67 college credits and obtained a paralegal certificate. She also worked as an aide for mentally and physically impaired inmates. In an interview with Booth Newspapers, Gladys, eager to move on with her life and to build a future with her family in South Carolina, remarked, “I did 27 years and I had enough days that I was bitter and enough days that I was angry, so I’m looking for the future and what the future has to offer.”
Read more on the men and women whose lives have been impacted by inappropriate and unjust life sentences in The Meaning of Life: Long Prison Sentences in Context.