Would you ever date someone in prison?

Could you fall in love with one of the millions of men living behind bars in America?  (Photo:  Natasha Haverty)

Could you fall in love with one of the millions of men living behind bars in America? (Photo: Natasha Haverty)

One of the enduring realities of life behind bars is that people on the inside often want and need support from people on the outside.

Sometimes that yearning – which can provide practical stuff as well as emotional connections — leads to on-going relationships, love-affairs, even marriages.

I’ve interviewed women several times in my career who were involved in long-term committed relationships with incarcerated men.

For some, particularly in poor African American, Hispanic and rural white communities, the fact that a guy is locked up just isn’t that huge a deal – incarceration is a normal part of the life experience for couples and families.

But it’s still a bit mysterious.  Why would a woman hang on?  Why would anyone spend years — or decades? — trying to make it work with someone who committed a crime, whose life in on hold indefinitely?

In this week’s Slate magazine, writer Melody Wilson grapples with this question.  She herself was in a long-term relationship with an inmate, whom she calls “Justin.”

“[I]n the spring of 2006, Justin came back into my life with a phone call from my mother,” Wilson writes.  “This time, he’d really screwed up, my mom told me; he’d been arrested as an accomplice in a double murder.”

Wilson acknowledges that the idea of this kind of relationship faces a lot of skepticism, even dismissal.

Prison relationships, in particular, “tend to be built mostly on fantasy of the other,” Harley Conner assures me. Conner is a doctoral candidate in clinical psychology at George Washington University who has worked as a probation counselor to jailed youth and has conducted clinical work in forensic and correctional settings for about three years.

In the end, Wilson’s prison relationship ended — after about a year — without much fanfare.  “We grew apart,” she writes.  But she says she received a lot of meaningful support and love from Justin.

So what do you think?  If the person you loved were sent to prison, or if you met someone incarcerated, could you — would you? — connect?  Or would this be a non-starter?


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Support for the Prison Time Media Project is provided by the Prospect Hill Foundation, the David Rockefeller Fund, the NY Council for the Humanities and by numerous individual donors via Kickstarter. Special assistance provided by the Adirondack Community Trust.