Dating a Prisoner is Better Than it Sounds
I’ve always liked the phrase “conjugal visit”—the way the words wallow around on your tongue and have an onomatopoeia effect, if you’re the noisy type.
Ruth Madoff visited Bernie recently. We don’t know what state their relationship is in, but I don’t picture them requesting a conjugal visit any time soon. For the regular visits, Ruth has to rein herself in: “Handshaking, embracing and kissing are ordinarily permitted within the bounds of good taste and only at the beginning and at the end of the visit,” the rules say, and “miniskirts, spandex and see-through, form-fitting or low-cut blouses are all prohibited in the visiting room at Butner,” Bernie’s new digs for the next 150 years. The rules don’t mention the confiscated Russian sable coat.
With Bernie in his 70s and Ruth fast approaching them, much more than a peck on the cheek may not be necessary unless Bernie’s got an insider doling out the Viagra, probably not a drug that should be introduced in prisons.
I know several people who have had relationships with people in prison. One of them is Amy Friedman, who was married to a prisoner for six years while he was on the inside. I found Amy in the New York Times when she wrote an article about her marriage for the Modern Love column in February. She’s now about 10 and a half minutes away from completing her memoir on the experience. When I remarked to Amy that I knew more than my share of people who had experienced a conjugal visit, she said, “It’s not that you know so many, it’s that there are so many people in prison.” (The federal government and budget crisis is squeezing California to release 40,000 prisoners, an act that will surely ruin many ideal relationships.)
Amy also writes legends and fairytales for children, which got me thinking about the very strong bond that exists between couples who have an electric fence, 30-foot reinforced concrete walls, and armed guards between them. Like Romeo and Juliet with razor wire on the balcony, or Rapunzel and her hair-fetish prince. Forbidden love. But in fairy tales and legends, more often than not it’s the women who are imprisoned, with princes pining below the tower or balcony. In reality today, more men than women are locked up, with a woman pining at the guard tower, or metal detector.
Amy and a few of my former roommates filled me in on the realities of conjugal visits. The only way to physically consummate your love in prison is to request a “family visit” from the warden. Spontaneity is all blown to hell with the request going in three months in advance, but there’s something to be said for anticipation. The warden is less likely to turn you down if you’re married, so that’s a pit stop along the way. Pre-marital sex is frowned upon–I assume to protect the prisoners’ moral reputations. (Though you’d think once most of the mortal sins have been slashed through ,they would be free to run through the venial ones.) Imagine: a trailer house where many have gone before, a place where naugahydes go to die. But the couple’s love is so strong, and their desire so intense, that scratchy sheets and musty smelling pillows—even guards listening at the door!—won’t deter their passion.
So, why would anyone want to date a person in prison? “Date” probably isn’t the right word, as there are no restaurants, movie theatres or even bowling alleys in prisons, at least not in the visitors’ lounge. Maybe predictably, the women I know didn’t intend to get involved with someone in prison. It just happened that way. Amy met her Romeo when she was interviewing him for a column she wrote. Both of my roommates had just met their beaus outside the prison walls when the parole officer came knocking and the courtship had to change venues. Parents, friends, roommates…we all tell our loved ones “Don’t do it.” “What are you thinking?” “He’s killed four people, doesn’t that tell you he has issues?” When I told one of my roommates that her lover probably had a lot of baggage, her response was, “We all have baggage, Amy.” But to me, there’s baggage, and then there’s forty-foot shipping containers.
Some people do seek out this fairytale romance. InmatesForYou.com, PrisonPenPals.com, and ConvictMailbag.com are the Match.com for those searching for a particularly dysfunctional relationship. Or have these couples figured out the secret to an ideal relationship? ”Conjugal” reeks of prison, but resonates with a bond that many of us with all four partner feet “on the outside” struggle to acquire. One of my convict-dating roommates would receive a dozen red roses weekly. Daily, she received a hand-painted card in the mail (no Hallmark at the Federal Penitentiary). And nightly phone calls–collect, but who’s going to complain when the guy actually calls exactly when he says he’s going to? Clearly he didn’t just want her for the sex, since there wasn’t any at first. Time spent together was time for talking, for handholding. My other roommates and I began to envy this relationship.
On visiting days, the couple sits face-to-face and talks. No cell phones ringing, no football game on TV. Hell, she could tell him about the new knitting pattern she just learned and he’d have to sit there and listen. Okay, maybe he’d wander over to the vending machine, but he’d have to return to her side, or it’s back to his cell. Maybe that’s what we could learn in our “outside” loves: visiting hours are important.
When the warden denies that first conjugal visit, the fires of rebellion are reignited, reinforcing the couple’s bond. Every visitor’s day, it’s more of the same: disapproving looks and comments from friends and family. Prison guards sneering, telling the visitor her Wal-Mart t-shirt is too revealing and that French kiss is lasting too long. Fondling and playing footsy are not allowed, showing affection permitted only as dictated by Emily Post’s Guide to Prison Visitation. Together, the couple fights for their right to love, to be accepted by the world, or at least by family and day shift guards.
And eventually the prisoner’s release date arrives: the togetherness the couple has been fighting, hoping, waiting for is no longer quarantined and closely monitored by an armed stranger.
We never find out what happens after the happy ending of the fairy tales. Sure, Cinderella gets whisked away by the prince in his carriage, and Snow White gets kissed and assumes the surname White-Charming, and Rapunzel’s prince finds her in the desert with two children we can only assume were conceived during a conjugal visit. But then what? How does the marriage go after the honeymoon? “Happily ever after” is rarely all it’s cracked up to be.
On the outside we have the freedom to be fickle. Probably, the prince wouldn’t be so handsome if Rapunzel hadn’t been locked away and unable to date any other guys, prince status or not. Rapunzel wouldn’t have been so enticing without playing hard to get stowed up there in the tower. We never see happens when the prince finally gets to spend 24/7 with her, when she spends most of her time at the hair salon dealing with that unwieldy mess of hair, when he wakes up to her smelly rampion breath and has to listen to nonstop bitching about how traumatic her childhood was.
I hope Cinderella didn’t sign a pre-nup, but got a college education so she won’t have to go back to scrubbing floors once she gets tossed from the palace after her prince gets a whiff of her smelly little feet and seeks out a new damsel in distress. As for Snow White, maybe after all that time with those chimerical dwarves, life with Mr. Charming is dull, and she heads back to the woods.
Maybe these couples with bars between them had the ideal relationship, because more often than not, once the gates of San Quentin are open, the relationship disintegrates. Outside, it’s just two lonely people no one pays attention to, no disapproval, no intrigue or nonconformity. They are just like the rest of us–craving love and acceptance.
When the conjugal visit becomes diaphragm-in-the-nightstand, hopefully-simultaneously-in-the-mood, are-the-kids-asleep-yet sex, a certain passion is clearly missing. Perhaps the scratchy sheets and guard at the door aren’t missed so much as the mutual martyrdom. On the inside or the outside, when there’s someone rooting for you, or when someone understands how you feel about all the injustice in the world, it seems like a safer place.
Advice for the InmatesForYou.com subscribers: Get yourself a lifer not eligible for parole.
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