Jailed Love – Times Publications, April 2010
For many women, having a lover locked safely behind bars is the perfect relationship therapy.
In the two years Amanda Ceja and Ralph Peratti have been engaged, they have never shared a private intimate moment.
Never once have they been on a date. Any kisses have been chaperoned, their phone conversations recorded and monitored. The couple has never been alone, not for one minute, not for one conversation, not for one touch.
Ralph is currently serving a seven-and-a-half-year prison sentence at Lewis prison in Buckeye on charges of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon, stemming from an incident involving a DUI in 2004. While behind bars he met Amanda, a 32-year-old criminal justice major with ambitions to become a police detective.
They fell in love through letters, phone calls and supervised visitations, and last year, Amanda agreed to become Ralph’s bride.
“Just knowing him and communicating with him—that has been enough for me,” says Amanda, a divorced mother of three. “He just has a wonderful heart. We have the same dreams—having a family, living in a nice house, being dedicated to one another. You don’t get that these days.”
Amanda is part of a small but growing number of women who have found a different kind of love behind bars. While experts say these unconventional relationships can often be dysfunctional, many women who are engaged and married to inmates say that the barriers of the prison walls can create deeper bonds.
“All we have is communication and, in a way, I think that is better,” Amanda says. “I’m very attracted to him and he’s attracted to me, but you can’t do anything about it. I think it’s actually better to get to know that person first than to have the sexual part.”
Both of Amanda Ceja’s grandfathers were county sheriffs, and she always dreamed of following in their footsteps. Next year, Amanda is set to receive her associate’s degree in criminal justice and has plans to join the Mesa Police Department. Given her background and ambitions, she is the first to admit that it is quite perplexing that she would decide to marry a convict.
“I never, ever thought I would do this,” she says. “That’s why my family at first was like, ‘What the heck are you doing?’ They were just so amazed.”
Three years ago she received a letter from Ralph, who had obtained her address from another inmate who happened to be dating Amanda’s sister. With some reluctance, Amanda decided to write Ralph back.
“I was basically just interested in how the criminal mind works,” she says. “I thought he would be a good pen pal.”
Through their communications, however, Amanda was swept off her feet. Ralph sent her romantic poetry, hand-drawn cards and gifts including flowers made out of paper maché and jewelry boxes. Over time she began to develop romantic feelings for him. In July 2008, she told him that she loved him; a month later she saw him for the first time in prison. He proposed and they plan to wed next year upon his release.
“It took me a while to trust in him because the first thing I think is an inmate only has time. I figured he knows how to play the game, and he’s going to use any female he can just to get money,” she says. “But it’s not like that with Ralph and I.”
The U.S. correctional facility population—those in jail, prison, on probation or on parole—totals 7.3 million, or one in every 31 adults, according to information from Justice Department and Census Bureau statistics. It’s an extraordinarily gender lopsided population. Men are 11 times more likely to be incarcerated than women.
While there are no statistics on the number of men married while in prison, experts say it’s becoming increasingly common with the Internet, which makes it easier for prisoners to form pen-pal relationships with women on the outside. There are dozens of websites dedicated to people looking for these types of relationships, including www.prisonpenpals.com, www.writeaprisoner.com, www.inmate-connection.com and www.prisonerlife.com. Similar to any ordinary dating website, inmates post their pictures and profiles and list the kinds of mates they are looking to meet.
While research on prison marriages is limited, according to one study of Britain’s penal system, marriages taking place while the husband or wife is a jailed felon are actually less likely to end in divorce than conventional unions. Only one in nine weddings between criminals in jail and their partners ended in divorce, which is almost three times more successful than national rates on marriage failure, according to the study.
That surprising finding was based on the experiences of 24 women and four men, including a bank clerk, nurse and primary-school teacher. All were involved in relationships with prisoners. Nearly two-thirds said they felt their relationships had been strengthened by the adversities they had to face.
The research attributes the success of these relationships to long courtships. On average, prisoners were together with their partners for three years prior to committing to marriage. The mundane experiences of everyday life also help to strengthen the relationships. Prisoners had the opportunity to devote time to building a relationship and keeping the romance alive.
There is a definite romantic element in these relationships that certain women find appealing, says Elicka Peterson, a criminologist at Appalachian State University.
“It’s very much a fantasy, this type of relationship,” Peterson says. “There are all these great dramatic elements, ‘you and me against the world.’ ‘No one understands us.’ ‘I’m sticking by you.’ There’s just something about it that’s very heavy for these people.”
There are a variety of psychological and social factors that may explain why women appear more apt to fall in love with convicts, but generally this is common for women who have been victims of abuse or those who hunger for an emotional connection.
“The average person would say, ‘What would make a woman want to marry a guy in prison?’” Peterson says. “People with intimacy issues tend to be really drawn to this situation… There is also a pretty strong correlation between women who have been physically or sexually abused in the past being drawn to this situation.”
Arizona, like most other states, does not allow conjugal visits to inmates while in prison. Often, women who seek out these inmates suffer from a variety of psychological problems—depression or poor self-esteem. Others are seeking the unconditional love of someone who has less than them to validate their own stations in life.
“It’s also a really great way to rebel,” Peterson says. “For some women they like having someone who’s kind of shocking. It’s exciting. It sounds like it wouldn’t be, but it’s more exciting than the average relationship. There’s a heightened sense of drama.”
Standing by her Man
Thirty-year-old Jennifer Hall first met her fiancé, Jason Locklear, in middle school.
“He was my first real boyfriend, he was my first real kiss,” she says. “He gave me the little paper, ‘Will you be my girlfriend? Yes or no.’ I circled ‘Yes.’”
But over the years, the two broke up and drifted apart, and in her late teens, Jennifer’s life took a difficult turn. At 17, she got pregnant. Three children and several bad relationships later, she had all but given up on finding love.
Then two years ago, she learned that Jason was in prison serving a 12-year sentence for burglary. He had gotten addicted to drugs and was involved in a purse-snatching scheme. Despite those happenings, Jennifer decided to reach out to him, and through letters and phone calls, they rekindled their childhood romance.
“I didn’t expect it. I didn’t look for it. It was totally not my intention, but we fell in love,” Jennifer says. “We feel like we’ve been blessed because of the restrictions in prison, as odd as it may seem. Because we’re limited, we value our emotional and our spiritual relationship.”
Jennifer’s three children now call Jason “Dad,” and he even disciplines them over the phone when they break the rules. It is difficult not being able to share private moments together, Jennifer says, and the physical limitations can create a strain on the relationship.
“Even though I am not physically in prison, I live in the shadows of the prison system each and every day,” she says. “I am enduring prison life every day.”
Still, compared to men she has been with in the past who have abused her physically or verbally, she says Jason is honorable and respectful. The couple is engaged and currently on the waiting list to get married while Jason is still in prison.
“I made a commitment to Jason, and I’m sticking it out. I’m doing this bid with him for twelve years,” she says. “I have very much respect for Jason because even though he is not present with me physically, 24 hours a day he is in my heart, my soul and my mind.”
Death Row or Lovers’ Lane?
While there are countless cases of women who fall in love with criminals, it rarely happens in reverse. Accounts of men taking brides who are serving time for violent crimes are extremely rare. Experts say it is a gender-driven phenomenon normally carried out by women with a need to rescue and nurture. Often women in these cases hold career positions as caretakers, such as nursing or education. They tend to be more likely to sympathize with the males in these situations.
Perhaps most shocking is that the men serving time for some of the most ruthless crimes tend to attract the most attention from women on the outside, experts say.
“Inmates who are more notorious, who are actually in for more heinous crimes, get a lot more romantic attention than your basic burglar,” says Peterson. “For some people there may be a lot of attention-seeking behavior. People are very fascinated by this.”
Infamous serial killers John Wayne Gacy and Ted Bundy both were involved in committed relationships with women before being put to death. During his trial, Bundy, acting as his own attorney, even proposed marriage to former co-worker Carole Ann Boone in the courtroom while questioning her on the stand. She readily accepted, and Bundy announced to the court that they were married. Following numerous conjugal visits, Boone gave birth to Bundy’s daughter in 1982.
Richard Ramirez, a California serial killer dubbed the “Night Stalker,” married a pen pal in 1996, while awaiting execution for a string of brutal murders. Kenneth Bianchi and his cousin Angelo Buono, known as the Hillside Stranglers for the brutal murders of 10 girls in the Los Angeles area in the late 1970s, both married while they were in prison. Erik and Lyle Menendez, who are serving life sentences for the 1989 murders of their parents, have also both been married during their incarceration.
Even Scott Peterson, who was convicted of murdering his wife and unborn son and is serving on California’s death row, is reportedly flooded with letters from admirers as he awaits death in the execution chamber of San Quentin State Prison.
In these extreme cases, experts say it is often the thrill for the women or a fascination similar to that of a celebrity obsession.
Sheila Isenberg, author of “Women Who Love Men Who Kill,” says some women who enter into relationships with inmates who are serving life or who are facing the death penalty, often view these situations as safe. When their partner is incarcerated, they can’t beat them, abuse them or cheat on them, she says.
“These inmates basically represent safety because the men can’t hurt them while they are behind bars,” says Isenberg. “So in a sense the woman is in control. She decides when to visit. She decides when to accept the phone calls. The ball is in her court.”
In other cases, some women become convinced that a certain man has been wrongly convicted and then make it their life’s work to try to defend him.
Forty-year-old accountant Shannon Erickson knows exactly why she married a prison inmate—because she believes he is innocent. Her husband, Tom, is currently serving 14 years for theft and assault and battery, charges for which she believes he has been wrongfully convicted.
“I was raised to believe that only guilty people go to prison. That all changed when I met Tom,” Shannon says. “I realize now that simply being at the wrong place at the wrong time can take your life away.”
Shannon met Tom on www.meet-an-inmate.com, a website dedicated to connecting prisoners with pen pals. After hearing his story and researching his case, she began to believe he was misidentified by a witness, which resulted in his wrongful conviction. She decided to help him fight through the legal system to overturn the conviction.
Over time they fell in love, and in 2006 they were married in a brief prison ceremony. They exchanged vows in a stark prison visitors’ room. The wedding cake was scanned by a metal detector, and the chaplain’s background had to be checked. A few hours after the ceremony, bride and groom had to say goodbye, never having consummated their union.
For the past few years being with Tom hasn’t been easy, Shannon says. She says she faces a lot of prejudices because of her choice to marry a man behind bars, and the stigma associated with marrying a prisoner haunts her. Like many inmate wives, she uses her maiden name at work for fear of losing her job. No one except her immediate family knows that she is married to a prisoner.
“I love my husband, and I know he loves me. I am willing to stand by him no matter what,” she says. “My love for him is unconditional.”
Many successful, accomplished women have fallen for men who were behind bars. In a few of those cases, the resulting love drove them to do the unthinkable.
• Jennifer Hyatte, a Tennessee prison nurse, met and married George Hyatte, a career criminal who was behind bars. In 2005, Jennifer murdered a Tennessee Department of Corrections transport officer in order to free her husband. Jennifer and George led authorities on a 36-hour manhunt before getting caught in an Ohio hotel room. Jennifer pleaded guilty to the killing and was sentence to life without the possibility of parole.
• Prison psychologist Elizabeth Feil had an affair with an inmate who was convicted of murder, and she helped him stage a short-lived escape from the Maryland Correctional Institution in 1999. Feil served six months in jail. Her defense lawyer argued that low self-esteem allowed her to be manipulated by inmates in her care.
• Acclaimed Canadian poet Susan Musgrave married Stephen Reid, a convicted bank robber, while he was in prison. After his release, they had two children, and she helped him edit a best-selling novel he wrote about his past. But after 12 years of freedom, Stephen was back behind bars in 1999, sentenced to 18 years for his role in a bungled bank robbery that ended in a chase and shootout.
• Vicki Sanford, a prison guard who was three weeks away from her 24th wedding anniversary, helped an inmate escape from a Tennessee prison and was captured along with him six days later at a motel in Texas. Vicki even got a new tattoo prior to the escape that matched the one worn by the inmate, who was serving time for attempted murder.
• A Brooklyn prison psychologist, Magdalena Sanchez, who was married to a prominent Wall Street banker, had an affair with reputed Bloods gang member Demetrius Hill while he was incarcerated at the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn. She was later sentenced to probation for lying to federal officials about having jailhouse sex with the inmate.