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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