Looking for Love in a Prison Cell

Elizabeth Greenwood On the People Who Seek Relationships with the Incarcerated

The bride wears black.

An atmosphere of momentous occasion permeates Room 315 at the Rodeway Inn, nestled between two highways outside Salem, Oregon. It’s the morning of the wedding. Mary Kay cosmetics, SnackWell’s popcorn, errant shoes, and water bottles are strewn across the room, where the bride awoke at four this morning, ready for her day. She spent some quiet moments of the morning outside, smoking, watching the sun come up over the highway, feeling the presence of her grandparents looking down upon her.

But now, Journey, or Jo, as she’s known to friends, is a ball of nervous energy, pacing in bare feet, losing and being reunited with her cigarettes, phone in hand, overwhelmed by the messages of love and blessings coming through every few minutes. Friends have sent a bouquet to commemorate her nuptials, which the bride receives in grateful hysterics, so much so that Lisa—who has flown in from Missouri to attend to all the bridal details, like forcing Jo to eat a slice of buttered toast and running out to buy a forgotten razor blade at the gas station across the street—has to redo her eye makeup.

Lisa is then tasked with fashioning an updo free of bobby pins, as they’d surely send the metal detectors howling.

Afterward, Jo practices walking in her high heels, up and down the carpeted hallway. She has brought two backup outfits in case the guards deem her black sheath too formfitting, or the color too close to navy blue, the shade worn by inmates and therefore forbidden to visitors. Her wedding band, which she’d selected and bought herself, fits the prison’s specifications—no gold, no embellishments.

Today, Jo will marry Benny Reed, who is serving a ten-year sentence for attempting to murder his then-girlfriend. Their wedding will take place at the maximum-security Oregon State Penitentiary, in the visiting room decorated in white and pink streamers and paper wedding bells strung up by the prisoners themselves. Their wedding cake will be powdered doughnuts, and they will toast each other with blue Powerade from the vending machine. It will be the third time they have seen each other face-to-face. It will be the first time they’ve ever gotten to sit next to each other.

*

Whatever image comes to mind when you think “prison wife,” Jo ain’t it. She is in her mid-forties but looks like she’s 29 and seems to be in perpetual motion. She’s a mother of three sons: twin seven-year-olds and a 21-year-old. She often keeps her light brown hair pulled back when she’s running around doing errands and shuttling her kids to Boy Scouts. Her years in the military have given her a knack for organization, ball busting, and punctuality. She stands five feet four inches, but her presence makes her seem taller. She’s a survivor: of multiple combat tours as an Army medic; of PTSD, pill addiction, and the fibromyalgia she came home with; of an abusive first marriage in her twenties. She runs on Jesus, coffee, and cigarettes. She reads novels and nonfiction and watches documentaries for fun.

Jo does her research before making up her mind. She’ll crack a joke in line behind you at Target. She has a sardonic, self-deprecating sense of humor. Known to friends as Mama Jo, she is the sage older aunt who will help you get your head screwed on straight, and she’ll do it without judgment. “I give such good advice because I’ve done so much stupid shit,” she says. She doesn’t, however, consider marrying a man with a felony record whom she met on the internet and whose current address is prison to be among that stupid shit. Rather, the very strictures of prison have allowed for a level of connection Jo had never experienced before.

In a way, I get it. Over the course of reporting my book Playing Dead, about faked death and disappearance, I acquired my own guy on the inside, or “prison stalker,” to use his jokey nickname for himself. Sam Israel III is currently serving a 20-year sentence in Butner Federal Prison, in North Carolina, for mail fraud and investment advisor fraud to the tune of half a billion dollars. Sam famously faked his death by staging a suicidal plunge off the Bear Mountain Bridge in New York in June 2008, only to turn himself in to the feds three weeks later. That’s why I reached out to him.

The very strictures of prison have allowed for a level of connection Jo had never experienced before.

Most of our relationship has been epistolary, over the phone and through CorrLinks, one of the many third-party for-profit applications that connect those in the free world with those in prison. Sam and I have been exchanging messages nearly every day for more than seven years. Though interviewing him for my book wrapped in 2016, Sam is still one of the people with whom I correspond most frequently and consistently. We have never met in person.

Typically, I don’t offer up much information about myself to the people I interview, because it’s irrelevant (not to mention boring). But with an interview subject who’s in prison, who has lost much connection to society, the rules seem a little different. It seems unkind not to open up a bit more. So, with Sam, I did, and soon came to know firsthand the laserlike attention that a man with a very long day and little to fill it with can lavish on a lady.

He gets an allotted number of monthly phone minutes, and once he has spoken to his family and lawyers he spends the remainder on his stalkee. My phone once documented eight missed calls from the prison over the course of one evening.

CorrLinks emails max out at 13,000 characters, and Sam, if his energy is up to it, will send a half dozen a day. He remembers little details about me and asks perceptive questions about how I’m feeling, about what I’m thinking, about my friends and family. When he was in solitary, he sent me a 22-page double-sided handwritten letter, with stories of his past life on Wall Street. He’s offered life advice, which I have found thoughtful, even comforting. His vantage in the slammer and the time to reflect on his past give him a unique perspective on what really matters. He asks questions and listens with an unhurried patience that’s rare in our busy, digitized world.

He has sent me innovative cell-spun tokens of his affection: a copper chain-mail choker fabricated from metal pieces of his mattress and wrapped in toilet paper (“It may not be Harry Winston however it is Big House Benson!”); photos of himself posed in the prison yard, in shorts and a T-shirt with the sleeves cut off, revealing his sun-cured skin from long afternoons napping in the grass, his gleaming bald spot flanked by long, graying locks down to his shoulders. He has created colorful tableaus collaged from pages ripped from luxury catalogs and travel magazines, with captions narrating our future together. A private jet: “Ready to go?”

Throughout the half dozen years I’ve known Sam, he has gone from my subject to my stalker to my friend. His story is often featured on cable crime shows like American Greed, and, like clockwork, each time he gets a slice of the spotlight, he gets a new batch of mail from women intrigued. When he first told me this, I was fascinated and perplexed. This hit on just the kind of paradox I adore. In my first book, I explored the idea of how one could “die” in this lifetime, yet never escape one’s essential self. Here, I saw a similar impulse: Could you find love and vivacity in the ugliest of places? And what are the prisons we erect for ourselves?

While it’s jarring at first, most of us have heard about this phenomenon: people (usually women) pursuing criminals (usually men, always famous) whom they’ve learned about on the nightly news. The higher the profile of the criminal, the more Heloises to the Abelard. When Scott Peterson, who murdered his pregnant wife, arrived on San Quentin’s death row, stacks of fan mail awaited him. Ted Bundy, with a body count of at least 30 people, boasted scores of groupies at his trial, and married one of his staunchest defenders. Before he died, in 2017, Charles Manson got engaged to Afton Elaine Burton, a woman 53 years his junior. His name also calls up the iconic “Manson girls” he kept under his control. Infamous patricide twins Erik and Lyle Menendez both married women they met while in prison, one a former Playboy model and another a magazine editor turned lawyer.

These women—part groupie, part lonely hearts—are who we imagine as prison wives. But “prison wife” is more than a stock character. So why go looking for love in a prison cell?

*

The incarcerated themselves are rarely stock characters, either. There are currently 2.3 million people incarcerated in the United States, a disproportionate number of them Black and Brown. In 2020, men accounted for 93 percent of the total number of people in prison. Though African-American and Latinx people make up approximately 32 percent of the US population, they accounted for 56 percent of all incarcerated people in 2015. If these groups were incarcerated at the same rates as whites, prison and jail populations would decline by almost 40 percent.

The United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world, and we have the highest rate at any moment in our nation’s history. These skewed numbers are a result of policy choices from the War on Crime and the War on Drugs in the past 40 years rather than an indicator of unprecedented crime rates, or reflective of who actually creates harm in our society. Street-level crimes like burglary and theft, for example, account for an annual $16 billion of losses. White collar crimes, like fraud and embezzlement, rob victims of $300-$800 billion a year, according to the FBI. The vast majority of white collar criminals are white men, and they rarely face the same level of consequences Black and Brown people do for lesser offenses.

The United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world, and we have the highest rate at any moment in our nation’s history.

In addition to those in prison, there are millions more, mostly female partners, experiencing incarceration alongside them. Prison wives form their own communities, and, sometimes, hierarchies emerge. Couples who were in a relationship before incarceration are at the top. Those who knew each other before one went to prison—as classmates or co-workers, with some kind of free-world experience—and then reconnected once one went away are in the middle. And those, like Jo and Benny, who met while incarcerated, or “MWI,” are at the very bottom. They didn’t know each other out in the free world, where they would’ve gone out to eat, bickered over household chores, Netflixed and chilled. To the prison wives who have long histories with their men, MWI women can be seen as pathetic losers or, worse yet, prison groupies. Women dragged into this life by their law-breaking partners look side-eyed at the MWIs and wonder: Why would you ever step into this world of your own volition?

Jo met Benny the way many a MWI couple connect: through a prison pen-pal site. Though these sites have slightly different bents—humanitarian, religious, fetishistic (see: jailbabes.com; loveaprisoner.com; cagedladies.com)—all roads lead to romance. When Jo was looking to brighten a prisoner’s day, one of the sites she checked out was writeaprisoner.com, which has more than 13,000 active prisoner profiles and gets 7,000 unique page views daily. The site matchmakes pen pals, and members exchange handwritten letters. (Depending on the facility, you may also be able to send emails at a cost. But in prison, snail mail is a sure bet.)

Inmates pay $40 a year to post shots as smoldering as anything you’d see on Tinder and fill out profiles stating their backgrounds, their interests, their likes and dislikes. You can select for your prisoner pen pal’s age, ethnicity, astrological sign, and gender identity. Site founder Adam Lovell designed his service for platonic connections, as he has witnessed much heartbreak from members over failed relationships. Still, he recognizes the inevitability of romance. “It’s human nature,” he told me. “Who doesn’t want to fall in love?” He recently penned a guidebook for prison relationships, advising couples on navigating long-distance with tips like “Have a recent picture of your partner in your hand when you talk on the phone.”

In the free world, the progression of love’s first bloom would lead to physical exploration. But the likelihood of getting that opportunity with an incarcerated partner is slim. None of the country’s 102 federal prisons allow conjugal visits. Only four states officially allow conjugals—New York, Washington, Connecticut, and California. And not every facility in those states offers them. For the vast majority of prison wives in America, getting physical in any way is not an option—at least if you’re following the rules. Some find creative ways to get intimate, from inmates staging fights in visiting rooms to distract guards so couples can quickly go at it to tracing one’s penis on paper to create an ersatz dick pic. Since her soon-to-be-husband is in prison in Oregon, Jo will have to wait almost four years to consummate her marriage.

During the time between her wedding day and the end of Benny’s sentence, Jo will make sacrifices of the flesh, heart, and checkbook to be with him. She lives on the east coast and visits Benny in Oregon only twice a year, at great expense for her, after which she returns home with credit card debt.

“We are literally as far apart as it’s possible to be,” Jo exclaims, bemoaning the cruel irony. “The United States is 3,280 miles across, and I am 3,276 miles away from him!” So why does she persist?

*

This is what I set out to learn. Who are these people who are also tangentially imprisoned, who choose this fate, by seeking out a person serving a sentence? How is being a prison husband a different experience from being a prison wife? What about people on the inside who met while doing time together? Can these relationships last in the free world? Can this kind of relationship, where one person is away from the daily grind of errands and work and kids, be a real relationship? What makes a relationship real, anyway? Is it mere proximity? Could a deeply devoted prison relationship be more “real” than a loveless free-world marriage? And what might these relationships tell us about our own more mundane arrangements? What does this particular experience—of support—within the criminal justice system reveal about the system itself?

These questions led me to prisons all across the country, to a conference for self-identified prison wives, to living rooms where binders of laminated love letters were pulled out. They led me to countless conversations—in visiting rooms and diners and parking lots and living rooms, over vending machine chips and enchiladas and fruity cocktails and appetizers and cigarettes and coffees—all about the kind of romantic connection most people (prison notwithstanding) long for.

I met and interviewed dozens of people who were in a relationship with a person in prison, as well as people who were incarcerated themselves with their beloved outside. I saw people coming into themselves. After standing up to society’s and friends’ and families’ judgments over their incarcerated partners, I saw a whole world of opportunity open up for them. I saw women go back to school, start businesses, set boundaries. And, sometimes in the same breath and sometimes years later, I heard stories of heartbreak, deception, and hurt. As a writer, it has been a privilege to listen to people’s accounts of their most intimate moments, hopes, and desires. I hope these relationships illustrate the privileges many free-world people take as the air we breathe, in daily life and in love.

__________________________________

Love Lockdown

Excerpted from Love Lockdown: Dating, Sex, and Marriage in America’s Prisons. Used with the permission of the publisher, Gallery Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, Inc. Copyright © 2021 by Elizabeth Greenwood.

Elizabeth Greenwood
Elizabeth Greenwood
Elizabeth Greenwood is the author of Playing Dead: A Journey Through the World of Death Fraud. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, VICE, O, the Oprah Magazine, Longreads, GQ, and others.





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