Prison relationships face serious challenges, but can be a source of support after release

Loneliness, shame and prison rules all make keeping love alive difficult

By Catherine Legge, producer/director, Met While Incarcerated

Making a relationship work is hard, but making a relationship work when one partner is in prison can be nearly impossible. Many of the dozens of couples my producers and I met making the film Met While Incarcerated struggled with this challenge. And today, most are no longer together.

Time in prison increases divorce rate
Speaking with The New York Times in 2005, Oklahoma City prison chaplain Ron Grant said that 80 per cent of married will men find their marriages end within their first year in prison. For women, he added, the rate is nearly 100 per cent. Another study noted that each year of a prison term increases odds of divorce, even after getting out, by an average of 32 per cent.

While making Met While Incarcerated, I learned that “prison wives” and women in long-term relationships with incarcerated men tend to talk openly in social media groups about feelings of shame and guilt, and the stigma they face, especially if their partner has committed a violent crime. Many are frustrated that they’re unable to share in life’s simple joys with their partners.

These women also often find themselves resenting having to bear the brunt of financial and parenting responsibilities alone. Maintaining a relationship with an individual in prison is expensive, too. Between visits, phone calls and giving their partner money “on his books” for food or toiletries, they can spend thousands of dollars a year to support the relationship.

Rules, danger and attitudes in prison
Many partners of incarcerated individuals also feel loneliness. It’s different than a long distance relationship, after all: this one is defined by the prison’s rules. They can’t call or visit whenever they want. All communications are controlled and monitored. Even physical touch has limits and is supervised.

Michael and Angela, who are featured in the film, are allowed five “contact visits” a year, where they can be in the same room. Otherwise, they can only see each other twice a month, separated by glass. Any breach of the rules can have serious consequences, such as suspensions from visiting or losing visitation privileges altogether.

When there’s a lock-down situation, partners can go days or even weeks without a phone call. Managing relationships in the prison system is even harder for younger men and women who are generally accustomed to immediate and unlimited communication.

There’s also the matter of danger, and people often worry about their partner’s safety. Many of the incarcerated men we spoke to in the film said they don’t share how dangerous prison life is with their partners.

Living on high alert all the time, and hustling and manipulating their way through life inside according to the prison code means they tend to develop a hard demeanour, too. Ben says, “All day long I’m having to stand off and keep everybody at arm’s length, and then [I’m] spending that half hour with my girl on the phone, my wife on the phone, and caring about what she has to say. It’s a really weird change.”

None of this is romantic.

 Prison relationships are on the rise
But despite all of this, people fall in love. And thanks to prison pen pal websites and improved technology for communication and visitation, new relationships between current inmates and “outmates” — as shown in the film — are on the rise.

Corrections professionals in the U.S. and Canada have studied whether stable relationships and marriage reduce criminality and recidivism. A study of 524 California parolees found that the biggest factor in whether or not an inmate would return to prison after release wasn’t drugs, income or any other demographic factor, but whether or not he or she was part of a stable relationship upon release.

In Canada, Private Family Visits (PFVs, otherwise known as conjugal visits) are now allowed, with some restrictions, in all prisons. Couples no longer have to be legally married; they just need to show they are in a long-term relationship.

I teach prison inmates to be accountable for their crimes. Their future depends on this work.
My best friend is a murderer: finding love and forgiveness after an unthinkable crime

These PFVs are prohibited in the federal U.S. prison system, and only four states allow these kind of visits in their lesser- and medium-security prisons: California, New York, Connecticut and Washington. Even then, inmates have to earn the privilege and keep an impeccable record to maintain them, which is intended to stabilize their behaviour inside.

An update on the film’s couples
The subjects in our film, Met While Incarcerated, struggle through all of these relationship challenges.

Angela and Michael’s relationship is at the mercy of the corrections system. Last year, the state of Louisiana defeated the criminal law reforms that might see an end to the death penalty, and, very recently, legislators discussed methods to speed up executions, which have been on hold since 2010. Sometimes loving Michael, but still wanting marriage, children and a regular life, is often simply too much for Angela to handle amid all the uncertainty.

Sonny and Brenda have been through serious ups and downs since his release, but their last report said they were “still chipping away at love.”

Leading up to Ben’s release in January 2020, he and Journey have hit a rough patch and are working through some “regular marital issues,” according to Journey. At this point, it’s hard to say if Journey will be there at the gate when Ben comes out.

Watch Met While Incarcerated.

Available on CBC Gem

Met While Incarcerated

documentary Channel