Art for House of Connection.
From the CBC documentary Met While Incarcerated. | CBC

House of Connection

Despite the inhumanity of America’s jails and prisons, some inmates find soul mates

From the CBC documentary Met While Incarcerated. | CBC
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I have never been in prison, but I have been in jail.  As a newbie attorney, I was, on several occasions, required to visit clients who were behind bars. The protocol for these visits was that after you put your personal effects in a locker, you got in an elevator with no buttons. An officer at the lower level would activate the elevator to send you up to the visitation floor, where another officer would open the elevator door to let you out. One time, while undergoing this protocol, the officer on the visitation floor forgot for a very long minute to open the door. There I stood, trapped in the tall metal box, with no buttons, with no phone, and no means to get out.

Just as I was beginning to panic, the door opened. The officer, who was leading a shackled inmate to a visiting room, apologized. I shrugged it off, but I was inwardly shaken. For that terrible moment, I had come as close as I had ever been to feeling contained against my will and feeling the force of the body’s inward rebellion against imprisonment. Actual prison (this was just a county jail), with its attendant indignities is many times more frightening. As one lawyer I know put it, there is nothing like the sound of metal doors clanging shut behind you.

It is this closed-off world that author Elizabeth Greenwood takes us into in her book Love Lockdown: Dating, Sex, and Marriage in America’s Prisons. Focusing on the stories of five couples, all of whom are “MWI,” or “Married While Incarcerated,” Greenwood details the complications, absurdities, and also (and perhaps most surprisingly) the joys of relationships where one or both halves are behind bars. The book begins with a prison wedding between Jo (short for Journey) and her beau Benny. Jo, a former Army medic who is “in her mid-forties but looks like she is twenty-nine” and runs on “Jesus, coffee, and cigarettes,” is nervous and worried about the ceremony, which is to be held in the visiting area of the prison. Benny Reed, the groom, is in for ten years for the attempted murder of his ex-girlfriend. The two exchange rings and enjoy the special concession made for the day—they get to sit next to each other for the first time in their lives.

Benny and Jo met, we learn, through a prison pen pal site, one of many, it appears, that are out there. In some, prisoners can pay money to have a profile, complete with pictures. To those who are not familiar with the prison subculture, the existence of such platforms may be surprising. However, given that by 2019 there were a whopping 2.1 million people incarcerated in the United States, it is only a matter of course that this population would find ways to connect—prisoners want to reach out to potential partners or at least pen pals. (At least two of the couples Greenwood profiles did not start their correspondence with romance in mind.)

When Ivié gets a letter from a former diplomat in response to her ad in Writeaprisoner.com, she is euphoric and writes a forty-page letter that she sends off by overnight priority mail.

Greenwood does well to note throughout the book that the most reliable way to reach a prisoner is sending off that relic of our age—the handwritten letter. Chemistry has a way of jumping off the page; the story of Ivié and Jacques—she serving two consecutive sentences totaling at least fifty years for her involvement in two homicides, he a former Belgian-Canadian diplomat living on the outside—is a case in point. When Ivié gets a letter from a six-foot-tall former diplomat, in response to her ad in Writeaprisoner.com, she is euphoric and admits to having “spent an entire night writing to him,” a missive of forty pages that she sends off by overnight priority mail. The next day, she realizes the excessive nature of her response and sends another letter apologizing for the first.

Before long, Ivié and Jacques are in love and then married. This, however, is not the sort of marriage where the two are just excited to sit next to each other. Because Ivié is incarcerated in New York state, time allotted for family meetings can include conjugal visits with a spouse at some facilities. These occasions, ones she had used to spend time with her ailing mother prior to Jacques’s appearance in her life, are moments when the couple can do what couples do—talk, cook, and have sex. Both look forward to them, Ivié because they help her feel human again; they allow her to clean (she scours the trailer where the visits occur), cook, and be touched. For Jacques, it is the visits, rare as they are in the larger prisonscape of the United States, that make the relationship sustainable. As he tells Greenwood, “I am not a monk.”

As one gets deeper into Love Lockdown and this world of love and sex in prison, it is hard to miss the insights that these relationships, limited though they are to letters, occasional visits, and short daily phone calls, offer into gender dynamics in the free world. It is notable, for instance, that the “free” women in MWIs take on their role as prison wives as an identity, one that implies celibacy either until their partner is released or forever if there is no prospect that they will be. Ivié has a “poignant realism” about the fact that men might see things differently. Jacques, the former diplomat, “doesn’t seem to revel in the free-world sacrifice,” though Greenwood doesn’t appear to ask him directly whether he is committed to monogamy. For Jacques (a pseudonym), the relationship is a good deed, something he is doing to make someone else’s life better. “Of course I love Ivié,” he says, “but it’s complex. I decided to make one other person happy.”

Yet there is always the looming potential for deceit. When Greenwood attends a conference for MWI women, she notes that many worry about whether their men, despite being incarcerated, are cheating, writing to many women so that they will send them money for their commissary and do other favors. The men don’t seem to worry about this at all. The male entitlement, the confidence in taking rather than giving, apparently transcends prison bars and boundaries.

It is undoubted, given the proliferation of prison pen pal sites, that the virtual world has permitted prisoners to, at least figuratively, escape their confined lives. Sliding into relationships with other humans, after all, has the guarantee of the one thing prison life denies at every step: the possibility of feeling human. This affirmation of humanity—bounded, qualified, and fantastic as it may be—confirms what prisoners doubt most: that their lives are worth something and that they are connected to other lives. The story of each couple in Love Lockdown has this same underlying theme, but the joy, the delights of possibility, are not at all one-sided. Even as she serves dinner to her twin sons, Jo is waiting, hoping to hear from Benny. When the call comes, Greenwood notes, it makes her more cheerful, even more confident. If those on the outside are affirming the humanity of the inmate, it’s also true that the lavish attention the inmate can bestow is intoxicating. Greenwood would know, as she admits in the first pages of her book. In the process of researching her last book, she found her own platonic interlocutor, an ex-hedge fund millionaire doing time for financial crimes. The texts, emails, letters he sends are revelatory; they illustrate “the laserlike attention that a man with a very long day and little to fill it with can lavish on a lady.”

Prison love, Greenwood’s complex and thoughtful investigative journalism reveals, is equal in a very real sense—both sides are intent upon delivering what the other needs. While burdened by a thousand obstacles, bureaucracies, and the very real physical separation of walls, barbed wire and armed guards, they never quite lose their focus on each other. It is somewhat beguiling, this possibility of deep connection, which requires time and paper and a sort of intentionality that the free world takes for granted. It is ironic, too, that it is the kept apart, the imprisoned, who would reveal the necessity of it.

Rafia Zakaria is the author of Against White Feminism (W.W. Norton, 2021) and Veil (Bloomsbury, 2017). She is a columnist for Dawn in Pakistan. She's written for the Guardian, Boston Review, The New Republic, and The New York Times Book Review.

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