couples

"We send photos." Inmates and their partners on how 'prison relationships' work.

Many people who end up in relationships with prisoners say the same thing: They weren’t originally looking for love.

Jo, a military veteran and 44-year-old mother of three, was simply doing a good deed, she thought. Four years ago, she was dropping off old clothing at a friend’s church when she passed the prison ministries table. A volunteer urged her to send a warm holiday wish to a prisoner. She selected Ben’s profile from PrisonPenPals.com because he stated explicitly that he was only looking for friendship. They struck up a correspondence and discovered a shared sense of humour and undeniable chemistry. Two years later, I walked Jo down the aisle of the Oregon State Penitentiary.

Dan, a 49-year-old from Texas, was researching gay travel in Eastern Europe when he clicked on a confusing banner ad for GayPrisoners.net. (And to be fair, the site is a barrage of ancient clip art and analogue graphics.) “I thought, ‘What in the world is that?’” But he was immediately drawn to a profile. Will was imprisoned at a facility not too far away from where Dan lived. They wrote back and forth, Dan would eventually visit, and they became a couple. When Dan visits Will in prison, he says that he’s his uncle.

They weren’t looking for romance, and yet here they are. Jo recalls being terrified the first time she went to meet Ben face to face: “I’m voluntarily walking into a prison. Like, what the hell am I doing?” she remembers thinking. “People are trying to escape from this place. Why am I here on purpose?”

That’s what most outsiders don’t consider when thinking about prison love: the soul searching, the questioning, the identity crisis of what falling in love with an incarcerated person means.

love in prison
"They weren’t looking for romance, and yet here they are." Image: Getty.

Plus, the judgement our society levies upon prisoners — that they are somehow unworthy and irredeemable — and that people like Jo levy on themselves. You’re committing not only to the prisoner but also to the lifestyle: taking on the anxiety of knowing the dangers your imprisoned loved one faces on a daily basis — from threats of violence to lockdown — the lack of physical intimacy, and even great expense. I interviewed women and men who tallied their monthly routine costs to be in the hundreds, sometimes thousands, of dollars, all in the hope of maintaining some sense of normalcy and connection. These bills include exorbitantly priced collect phone calls; email and video messaging; money for commissary accounts; plane tickets, rental cars, and gas for their loved ones to travel to the far-flung rural outposts where many prisons are situated; hotel rooms to visit for a few days at a time after making the journey; $20 bills to feed into the vending machine at visits; and prison-approved outfits to satisfy byzantine regulations.

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But desire is a potent force, and couples find meaningful ways to express their love despite great distances and locked gates. Jo lives on the East Coast and gets out to Oregon about twice a year. But she cites the distance as her and Ben’s strength: “Take sex out of the equation and all the confusion that goes along with it. How often do you actually get to know someone without those distractions?” Jo and Ben got to know each other through a year of letter writing, phone calls, and emails before ever meeting face to face, like a modern-day Heloise and Abelard. They emphasise and prioritise communication, because communication is really all they have. “Anytime one of us doesn’t feel right about something, we talk about it, no matter what it is,” Ben says.

For many people in relationships, that kind of communication is rare. How often are we really listened to? How often do we find someone who gives us their undivided attention? How often do we get to feel like the most interesting thing in someone else’s life, the best part of their day?

But beyond communication, prison relationships force couples to be creative to clearly convey their affections. Ben surreptitiously snuck a T-shirt into the mail for Jo so she could wear it and feel enveloped in his arms. Regina and her husband, Manuel, who is serving a 24-year sentence in Colorado, have developed a personal shorthand language: “When the wind blows, we say it’s one of us sending a kiss. I have poems recorded that Manuel has written for me and read over the phone, and I play them when I need him but can’t immediately talk to him.” They formed a book club of two, reading and discussing titles like The Five Love Languages.

Orange is the New Black doesn't get everything right. Image: Netflix.
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But what about physical needs? Creative ingenuity plays a part. As Regina told me, “I write stuff to Manuel that would put that Fifty Shades of Grey lady to shame!” You can send racy lingerie photos, as long as your bits are covered. But photos and letters will be monitored by corrections officers, as are phone calls and the inevitable practice of phone sex. One woman told me that prior to a steamy session, she directly addresses the guards she knows are listening in: “I tell them, you’re welcome!” I’ve heard of fights being staged during visits so officers are distracted and couples can (very, very quickly) consummate their relationships. The inmate-produced podcast Ear Hustle details similar innovations at San Quentin, such as unmarried couples providing cover for each other on an outdoor patio for momentary intimacy. Some incarcerated partners have reported purposely getting in trouble so their visit can be “non-contact,” like the glass partitions and phones you see in movies. With the privacy of that tiny partition, couples can perform for each other and masturbate. But the vast majority of the couples I’ve spoken with tend to play by the rules. Jo looks forward to her biannual hugs with glee. At Ben’s security level, it’s all the couple is afforded: an embrace at the beginning and end of each visit. Conjugal visits exist, but only in Washington, California, New York, and Connecticut.

But still, you wonder: Is it enough? All say yes. Why else would you suffer such great expense and anguish?

Armchair psychologists will speculate that these arrangements are mere imitations of “real” relationships. That without the dross of everyday life, one can exist in a liminal fantasy where everything is all about longing and imagining an idealised life together. For some, these relationships are safe and give women power. Like Samantha Spiegel told me about her relationship with Richard Allen Davis, where she got to determine if and when she picked up the phone, if and when she would visit.

But for many other women, these relationships are the furthest thing from safe. Take Ro Elizabeth, the 39-year-old founder of Strong Prison Wives and Families. Her boyfriend Adam is in federal prison in Pennsylvania on a felony weapons charge that under mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines gave him a baffling 213-year sentence. The couple is hopeful for an appeal, but the future is uncertain: “My relationship is the exact opposite of ‘safe,’” Elizabeth says. “I have to put everything I want in my life on hold.” She wants what many want: kids, marriage, a full and happy home. By committing to Adam, she’s rolling the dice that her deepest desires will ever become a reality.

And yet many prison wives say they wouldn’t trade the experience of loving someone in lockup. Maybe the length of the time, but not the unique opportunity of getting to know someone so slowly, deliberately, and free from the pressures of carnality and the outside world. Jo summed it up when I asked her why she married Ben, despite the fact that they wouldn’t be living together as husband and wife for four years: “He’s everything I never thought really existed in a man. He’s perfect for me. How do you not wait?”

This piece originally appeared on Medium and has been republished with full permission. Elizabeth Greenwood is the author of PLAYING DEAD: A Journey Through the World of Death Fraud and is currently at work on a nonfiction book about prison relationships. You can follow her on Instagram and Twitter.

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