by Bobbi Smisko
I arrived at Phoenix Prison on November 29, 2018 at 5:30 pm to volunteer in my weekly restorative justice program. Once one arrives inside the program services wing, finding a guard and then walking to a women's restroom is no easy task in the all-male, maximum security prison, so I often stop at the women's room in the waiting area before beginning the evening session.
That evening, after leaving the bathroom stall, I noticed a woman standing at one of the three sinks fixing her makeup. A second later I realized she had on what looked like a wedding gown. Curious but not wanting to appear nosy, I said, casually, "What a pretty dress. It looks like a wedding dress."
The woman turned toward me, and putting down her mascara wand, she told me her story. She had just married the love of her life that morning. They had been engaged when he was arrested and jailed at age 26. He is now 54 and they have remained together - well, as together as a couple can be when one is in prison for twenty-eight years. Her eyes were all sparkly and she exuded the excitement any bride would feel on her wedding day.
The reason she was back at the prison in the early evening was that the photographer did not turn up in the morning to take pictures of her and John as they exchanged their vows. Uncharacteristically agreeable, the staff informed her that if the photographer could come that evening, she could come in her dress and have pictures taken then. Knowing how things change on a dime in prison life, I am only cautiously optimistic that it all happened as planned.
When I arrived at my meeting location with the 14 incarcerated men in my program, I asked them if they knew a man named John who had married that morning. Several of the men knew him and were excited to hear the news. We had had a very serious meeting and the news of the blessed event in the life of someone they knew really brightened their spirits - and mine, too.
There was a time when I might have felt confused about couples marrying while one spouse is in prison, and I have heard other folks verbalize judgment, or disgust, or make assessments about a woman's mental health or the man's devious reasons. It is only because I have spent some time with these men and have begun to learn a little bit about what life is like in the prison that I understand how marriage could make sense to this couple. Love is love, and people are people. Being incarcerated changes a lot of things in your life, but you are still a person with dreams, and hopes, and emotional needs. When two people love each other, and are committed to each other, and are willing to make sacrifices to make their commitment legal, they might be able to continue a relationship until death do they part - even with one in prison.
I rejoiced for those two, but I also felt incredibly sad. She was a lovely woman who had been in love with him since they were young, and the men told me that John was one of the favorite people in the prison, well thought of by the incarcerated men and staff alike. I felt a tug at my heart over their separation and sacrifice.
But which one of us has a guarantee of a perfect life, a life without pain and suffering of some kind. This couple in their 50s was making a choice that perhaps only made sense to them, but it was their choice to make - and they did. I applaud their bravery and whisper a prayer that they will remain courageous in the days ahead. In the meantime, I feel a sense of privilege at having been drawn into their time of joy, if only for a moment.
--Bobbi is married with four grown children and six grandsons. She earned her BA from Eastern University at age 58 and completed a two-year course of study in 2016 to become a spiritual director at age 73 and shortly thereafter began volunteering at Graterford Prison (now Phoenix) in the Restorative Justice Program. Her hobbies are volunteering, hosting family and friends, reading and writing, and currently meeting with mixed race folks to better understand racial issues.