The Pandemic Rush on Prison Weddings

Like many pandemic brides in 2020, Jenny Smith’s wedding plans were put on hold. She had hoped to reschedule for this summer, but found that her officiant was booked up until February 2022. “I’m impatient to get it done — I’m ready to be his Mrs.,” said Ms. Smith, 41, who lives in Garland, Texas, and is unemployed.

Ms. Smith had already sourced her dress, an ivory, ankle-length gown, with three-quarter-length sleeves and a high surplice neckline from David’s Bridal. It had to be modest, she said, because anything overly revealing could be censured by the prison guards.

Ms. Smith’s nightmare is being forced to wear a baggy blue smock on her wedding day, the Texas department of corrections’ fallback attire for visitors that don’t adhere to the dress code. Ms. Smith’s fiancé is incarcerated in West Livingston, Texas, and becomes eligible for parole in 2030. “If your wedding has been put off because of Covid, where it is doesn’t make a difference,” Ms. Smith said. “Waiting is waiting.”

In 2020, the pandemic put a halt to numerous weddings worldwide, including thousands planned in prisons and jails. Now, as the coronavirus vaccine rollout continues, wedding fever is back in season, with brides clamoring to book vendors and venues. “2022 will be the most weddings since 1984,” said Shane McMurray, the chief executive of the Wedding Report, a wedding forecasting company.

Wedding officiants, for the public and for prisoners, say their calendars are packed and that couples need to plan a date six months or more out. “We’re going to do twice as much business, or more, in 2021 and 2022,” said Wendy Wortham, the founder of Texas Twins Events of Fort Worth, Texas, who has planned prison weddings.

On March 13, 2020, Texas imposed a statewide prison lockdown, to help stem the growing number of Covid cases in the state. Ms. Wortham spent her weekend informing and consoling 32 prison brides-to-be. “It was heartbreaking,” she said. “They were days away from their wedding, they had all their stuff packed, their travel booked, they’d gone through months of planning.” Now, as the rules relax, Ms. Wortham has 71 prison couples tentatively scheduled for 2021, with 161 more on her waiting list. It’s rare for prison brides to face the same problems as other brides, but in the case of canceled ceremonies, for once, both worlds are in sync.

“You have all these plans but you can’t move forward,” said Catherine Burris, an insurance agent in Arlington, Texas. Ms. Burris, 41, has been trying to wed her longtime partner, Jeffrey Gonzales, 43, since September 2020. Mr. Gonzales was incarcerated in 1998 for murder and is up for parole in 2027. The couple met in high school and reconnected in 2019. Initially, Ms. Burris was resistant to romance. “No one intends to get with someone in prison,” she said. But she couldn’t deny their connection, and when he proposed on Aug. 23, 2020, she accepted. She wrote her vows in anticipation. “You complete me and make me a better person. I will love you until I die.”

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Faced with millions of disappointed couples, several states issued executive orders that authorized virtual weddings — a ruling that carries over to the incarcerated. In Virginia, Byron Sichert, a nondenominational minister, has officiated 40 dial-in prison ceremonies since September. “People just figured we’re not going to wait this thing out, let’s get it done,” he said. He’s booked till late August. On March 20, 2021, Debbie Kalinowski, the owner of Wedding on Wheels, a mobile officiant service in Oaklyn, N.J., used Hudson County Correctional Facility’s video visitation app to marry a couple. Rev. Kalinowski, the bride, and two witnesses huddled around a cellphone in the bride’s home, in Red Bank, N.J., for the allotted 20-minute ceremony. It was Rev. Kalinowski’s first video wedding; despite New Jersey authorizing them in May 2020, only Hudson County corrections allows them. “They have the technology, but they discriminate against inmates,” Rev. Kalinowski said. “They’re treated like second-class citizens.”

In 1987, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that prisoners retain the constitutional right to marry. But prisons have not always been accommodating, said David C. Fathi, the director of the American Civil Liberties Union National Prison Project. “It’s a fundamental right,” he said. “Restrictions that seriously limit the availability of marriage are going to be invalidated.”

In Greensboro, N.C., Cierra Cobb, a Black trainee paralegal, and advocate for Emancipate NC, believes institutional racism is part of the problem. She had planned to wed her high school sweetheart, Jeffrey Cobb, 34, who is serving time for second-degree murder in Windsor, N.C., in March 2020. Lockdown derailed that. “It’s already degrading to have a wedding in prison,” she said. “Buying a dress and knowing you’re not going to use it — it’s a letdown.” They married in January 2021, using Alabama’s remote marriage provision, but are still waiting on their first married kiss.

Even pre-Covid, marrying an inmate was still a lengthy, challenging process. Some prisons allow weddings once a year, and the paperwork easily takes eight to 10 weeks to get approved. Brides forgo flowers and music, and their clothing is strictly regulated. But it’s worth it, they said. For many, it’s more than the promise of forever; a marriage license grants the outside partner familial privileges, including visitation rights and access to medical records, a benefit exacerbated by the disproportionate number of Covid-related inmate deaths.

Access to health records was important to Amanda Peterson, 46, a logistics manager in Houston who married her former high school flame, David Peterson, on Jan. 21, 2021.

Last April, Ms. Peterson’s estranged husband died from Covid complications, devastating her 10-year-old daughter. Soon after, Ms. Peterson received a letter of condolences from David Peterson, postmarked the Kansas Department of Corrections, where he was serving time for attempted second degree murder.

They had kept loosely in touch. Over letters and calls, their romance rekindled. In September 2020, Mr. Peterson caught Covid and spent six weeks in the prison infirmary. “It was really scary,” Ms. Peterson. “The prison won’t tell you anything!”

After he recovered, he proposed. Ms. Peterson filed the paperwork — Kansas allows proxy weddings — and they made it official. She slipped on her ring, an eternity band with a square-cut diamond, selected by her daughter, and mailed Mr. Peterson her vows. “It’s bittersweet,” she said. “We had to compromise on what we wanted. It wasn’t very romantic.” On the upside, she added, Mr. Peterson’s has since been transferred to Washington State Penitentiary, one of the four states that allow conjugal visits.

Prison visitation rules have begun shifting. On May 1, New Jersey opened correctional facilities for outdoor visits (but not for marriages); Texas resumed noncontact weddings on May 17; and Utah prisons reopen for noncontact visits in June.

Still, the ambiguity surrounding prison marriages, especially the reopening of contact ceremonies, which allow hand holding and one chaste kiss, exasperates Ms. Shameqwa Walker, a technical support worker in Hampton, Va. “I don’t really want to get married until we can hug and take pictures,” said Ms. Walker, 30, whose fiancé is incarcerated in the Minnesota Correctional Facility in Faribault. Her partner is scheduled for release in 2023, but she’s reluctant to wait. “It feels like Covid is never going to go away,” she said. “Getting married is a blessing. Some people try to judge the situation, but the heart can’t help who it loves or how you met.”

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