On Feb. 21, 1986, Marcia Gaile Owens arrived at the Tennessee State Prison for Women, convicted of hiring a man to murder her husband, Ron Owens. At age 34, she had been sentenced to death. All hope drained away as she stood before Debra Johnson, the intake officer who processed her into the system. As Johnson finished the paperwork that made Owens Inmate No. 109737, she leaned in close to the petite, frightened woman.
"Everything is going to be OK," Johnson told her.
Twenty-five years later, on Oct. 7, 2011, Owens' son Stephen and daughter-in-law Lisa — accompanied by supporters, friends, media and a dog named Abigail — clustered in the prison parking lot. Lawyers Gretchen Swift and Kelley Henry had been told that Inmate No. 109737 would be released between 9:30 and 10:30 a.m.
The eager group had begun arriving an hour earlier. The sky was clear blue and the slanted rays of morning sun made the rolls of razor wire atop the tall fence gleam. All eyes focused on a walkway between one of the buildings and a set of gates — the precise distance between incarceration and freedom. One person in the group knew exactly where to look.
Less than one year before, Linda Oakley had made that same walk and that same exit. When Oakley arrived at the Tennessee State Prison for Women in 1990, also convicted of killing her husband, the first inmate she met during intake was Gaile Owens. Then on Death Row, Owens gave Oakley her TDOC clothing. They did not see one another again until Owens was transferred to General Population in 1992.
Owens and Oakley became cellmates, and the two women found they had much in common. They were about the same age; they each had young sons they left behind when they went to prison. The two shared a cell until Owens was transferred back to a single room on Death Row in Unit 3 in 2002.
Though they were not allowed to see one another, they wrote letters and maintained their friendship. When then-Gov. Phil Bredesen commuted Owens' sentence to life on July 14, 2010, she returned to General Population two days later and reunited with her old roommate. And when Oakley was granted parole on Oct. 21, 2010, no one was happier for her than Gaile Owens. Though Oakley was not permitted to visit the prison, they stayed in touch through letters and phone calls, praying for the day when Owens might be paroled as well.
That day came on Sept. 28, 2011, a year to the day after Owens' original execution date. Ten days later — after Owens' assigned parole officer had made an official visit to the home of prison volunteers Patricia and Gene Williams, where she will live — her release was moments away. As Oakley waited, she paced, exchanging hugs, trembling with emotion and anticipation. As she she remembered her own release, she broke down in tears at the prospect of everything Owens had to look forward to.
"Tears will flow, it's very bittersweet," she said. "First, you're saying goodbye to the people you have lived with for years. They're family. You're leaving them behind, and it's very emotional.
"You have no idea what to expect. I didn't have a crowd of people here — my family lives in Mississippi, so they weren't here. But the couple who were taking me in brought me a new outfit to wear out, and they came to pick me up in their car. They were waiting right outside the gate, just like Pat and Gene.
"I got carsick on the way home, it had been so long since I had been in a car. I had never used a cell phone. What I wanted more than anything when we got to their house was to take off my shoes and walk in the grass. And I wanted some strawberries. I hadn't had strawberries in 21 years. I hadn't had the freedom to choose in 21 years — what to eat and when; what to wear or when to go to bed and when to get up. The choices can be overwhelming.
"The thing she has been waiting for so long will happen so fast she won't remember a bit of it. But what I am looking forward to more than anything is seeing the wonder on her face. I just want to watch her face as she experiences everything that is waiting for her."
At 9:17 a.m., a bright yellow cart on wheels emerged through a door at the prison end of the walk. Behind it, pushing, was Gaile Owens. The cart contained everything she had accumulated in 25 years of life at TWP, including one of the few things she was allowed to carry with her into the prison: the photographs of her two boys. At the sight of her, the assembled group waved and broke into spontaneous applause.
Walking beside Owens was a tall African-American woman in a brown sweater and floral skirt. As the gate opened, she leaned down close to Gaile Owens and whispered something in her ear. Then Warden Debra Johnson watched intently as the woman she had processed into the Tennessee State Prison for Women rushed 25 feet into her son's arms, and then her friend Linda Oakley's embrace. As the Williamses' car drove off, Gaile Owens turned around for one last time, and waved goodbye.
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