Illustration by Liza Burns

Married Behind Bars

To have but not to hold

You can get married twice a year, either on a Tuesday in April or a Tuesday in October. You can get married between eight and 10 in the morning. No flowers. No food. You can’t write your own vows. You can invite 10 people from an approved list.

Those are the rules. The groom, Jay, had learned the hard way to play by the rules. He’d been in prison for a quarter of a century by then. Convicted of assault, rape, robbery and murder, serving a life sentence at a maximum security penitentiary, he stood under a white plastic arch set up at the back of a big windowless room, dressed in prison blues, holding Dee’s hand. 

Dee’s son was in attendance. He didn’t have to travel far. He was an inmate at the prison. No one else from Dee’s family had accepted the wedding invitation. Jay’s father was there. This was the man who used to beat him and his mother with regularity, the man whose return from work he so feared that 14-year-old Jay wet his pants when he heard his father’s car pull in the gravel driveway.   

Dee looked lovely in a long blue dress and white high heels. Jay had gotten a haircut from the prison barber the day before. The ceremony was over in less than five minutes. The bride and groom were permitted to kiss. 

Because they got married first — there were two other weddings on the docket that morning — they could spend the next half hour together sitting quietly while the reverend, who charged $20 a pop, conducted the other ceremonies. This was their 30-minute honeymoon.

It doesn’t sound like a love story. But it was. It is.

And it’s not the story you think it is. It is not the story of a lonely woman or a predatory man. It is not the story of a woman who likes “bad boys” and gets her kicks dabbling on the dark side. It is not the story of a conniving convict looking to pad his commissary account or get help with legal battles. 

It is the story of two people who fell in love, slowly, tentatively, over time, through letters, letters that were opened and inspected by prison staff, letters that could take a week to traverse the less than 10 miles that separated the two of them. 

It is a romance story without any of the trappings of romance. No texts with emoji hearts. No languid late-night phone calls where no one wants to be the first to hang up. No walks on the beach. No candlelit dinners.

Just letters. Then a few moments a week on the phone, with other guys lined up waiting to make their calls. Then weekly visits in a windowless room with fluorescent lights that made everyone look nauseous and sticky vinyl-upholstered couches where you could sit next to but not touch your visitor.

It was the only space they could share. It would be their wedding venue.

It was Dee who found Jay. She was looking for someone to watch over her son who’d just started serving a term in prison. Dee was a law-abiding small-town woman who had no experience with the criminal justice system until her son did whatever he did to land himself behind bars. Somehow, she got Jay’s name. He had decades of experience. He knew the ropes. Maybe he could keep an eye on her son. 

So she wrote him. Jay was not a people-person. He was an introvert’s introvert. And, like most people who hurt others, he was himself deeply wounded.

But you look for ways to spend time when you’re doing time, and writing letters filled the hours, so he agreed. They started corresponding, sporadically at first, centered on her son.

Over time the letters became longer — eight, 10, 12 pages — and more frequent. They became personal. Dee was deeply ashamed that her son was in jail. She blamed herself — and others blamed her.

There was no one to talk to. And then there was Jay. 

He was a man on intimate terms with pain and shame. He was a man who had done so much wrong in his life that he could not judge others for what they had done. He was the sympathetic ear she needed.

And she was a person he could show himself to — not a fellow con to whom he had to present a mask, not a family member bowed under the weight of all that family baggage, but someone new. 

For months, they wrote. They narrated their life stories. They told each other what they had never told others. Jay had been playing tough since childhood. With Dee, he didn’t play tough.

Dee had never met a man capable of such open communication, so attentive to the nuances of a relationship. Jay didn’t think of himself as much of a writer — he couldn’t spell, he knew he had a limited vocabulary — but he spent time with each thought, with each sentence. 

When they decided to start talking on the phone, Jay was scared. Sitting alone on the bunk in his cell, crafting those long letters in careful cursive, he had time to think. He worried that on the phone, in the moment, he would sound stupid. He thought of himself as stupid.

But it turned out that Dee was easy to talk to. He loved the sound of her voice. Soon, they were discussing the idea of meeting face-to-face. He could have visitors. She lived nearby. But it wasn’t that simple. Nothing in prison ever is. 

Dee was already on her son’s visiting list, and the Department of Corrections has a policy that states that a person cannot be on two inmates’ visiting lists unless the person is related to both inmates. It meant that Dee could not visit both her son and Jay. 

They hatched a plan. They would arrange to be in the visiting room at the same time, she seeing her son, Jay visiting with his father. They planned to sit in the same area. Although crosstalk between visiting couples was a violation, if they were careful, they thought they might get away with it.

That first non-meeting meeting was silly and awkward and wonderful. They stole looks at each other. They surreptitiously passed notes. They were adults in their mid-40s acting like middle-schoolers.

They considered another plan: What if Jay tried to get himself transferred to another prison? Then Dee could visit him there. They discussed this for a while, but there were too many unknowns. What prison? How far away? When might it happen? It was an uncontrollable situation that could easily make things worse. 

Then Jay had another idea: It was a romantic proposal masquerading as a practical solution. They could get married, he suggested. Then Dee could visit both her son and her new husband. In letters, they had begun to declare their love for each other. She knew he had faced his demons. She knew the depth of his sorrow over what he had done so many years ago. They had forged a bond. But he couldn’t imagine she’d say yes. 

She said yes.

But getting married was not going to be easy. Nothing in prison is easy.

To get married, DOC rules stated that Jay would have to be on his future wife’s guest list first — which made sense — but which also meant, as the rules stated, she would have to be removed from her son’s list. Once removed from her son’s, it would take a month for her to get approved for Jay’s list, and then another month before they could get married.

But Dee was not just visiting her son; she was also bringing in her son’s children to see him. She was committed to doing that. She was not going to give that up. 

Jay decided to try the unthinkable: Request a meeting with a top prison administrator to plead his case and ask for an exception to the rules. DOC policies were, if not etched in stone, written in almost indelible ink. At the bottom of the prison hierarchy sat the virtually powerless prisoner; at the top was the virtually untouchable administrator. His plan, he figured, was such a long shot as to be a complete waste of time. But one thing Jay had was time.  

In love stories, the improbable sometimes happens. 

The improbable happened. 

Jay was granted an audience. And the administrator listened. And the visitors’ list rule was temporarily suspended. And the wedding date was set.

By 8:15 that morning in late October, the reverend had wrapped up the abbreviated ceremony. Jay remembers very little of what was said.

What he remembers is the kiss. He remembers the pure elation, not so much of the physical contact but of the knowledge that, although he had long ago given up any thought of having someone love him, this woman loved him.

They could never live together. They could never fall asleep in each other’s arms. They could never go grocery shopping, fight over whose turn it was to do the dishes, go for long car rides.

But what they could have — what they continue to have, now 15 years later — is an honest, deeply communicative, emotionally intimate marriage.

“Jay” and “Dee” are pseudonyms used to protect privacy.