There are some things you rarely get an opportunity to do. It might be an experience you never even thought of before but when it presents itself, you can't help but be intrigued. For me, the opportunity to go inside a prison was one I couldn't turn down! These are my experiences with marrying prisoners.
The Adventures of a Wedding Officiant...
When I first started performing weddings it was all new. Going to new venues, meeting new people, listening to their stories. The crazier or more interesting the better! I market myself as a wedding officiant that will marry anyone, any way they wanted to be married. My original intentions with that statement was meant to mean I'll do what a priest or pastor might not do but it's really turned into something better than that. It really can be an adventure!
The first time I got a call to perform a wedding in prison I was all over it. What an opportunity for a new experience! I'd certainly never been to a prison before and couldn't see any other opportunity to do so. I've performed several weddings in actual prisons and others via Skype for couples where the groom was in jail. Yes, in some Indiana jails, that's a thing. There are face to face visits and video visits. Some prisons will only allow you to sit in the lobby and talk via video on an old fashioned phone receiver.
My regular prices aren't necessarily what you will pay for me to perform a wedding in prison. It depends on the location of the prison, just like an other wedding. You can check out may Indiana wedding ceremony services here.
With all due respect
Please know that I'm telling my stories from general statements. What may be entertainment for one person maybe educational for another. I know that I've learned a lot and all the information is making me more of an expert as a wedding officiant and hopefully, a better person. I've written out many of my stories and I found that each time a different person reads a story they get have a different take. I may see the situation one way, you may see it another.
My intention in sharing my stories, in any form, is so those who are pondering marriage in any capacity might know that they aren't alone in their non-traditional weddings and marriages and that I respect their choices.
My most interesting story... The bride from Australia.
I received an email from a woman in Australia. She asked if I'd travel to Terre Haute to perform her wedding. She said it was important to her that a woman perform the ceremony. I thought to myself, gee, if you are going to actually travel all the way from Australia, the least I could do is travel from Fishers. What a great story! I gave her a quote and thought there was really no way it was going to actually happen. Or so I thought. (The prison in Terre Haute is where death row is.)
Prison weddings are not easy. There a lot of paperwork and added expense.
People call to inquire about marrying a prisoner but the marriage very rarely actually happen. You have to jump through a lot of hoops and do a lot of paperwork to marry a prisoner. Federal prisoners come from all over the country and often brides have to travel a distance to visit their fiance. The cost of travel and the cost of paperwork plus my fee can make it out of reach for many people. You also have to ask yourself, "do I really want to marry a guy in prison? If you think about anything long enough you are bound to change your mind about it several times.
I receive a lot of emails and inquiries and many of them are random so I can usually tell if a person is sincere or not. This email was. So, I can say one day, "I'm NEVER doing that again!" Based on one bad experience. And on another day, my mind will be instantly changed by the sincerity of an inquiry. Believe me, gone are the days when saying something like, "Miss Victoria, we'd be so honored if you would bless us...or God led us to you..." will work. I'm not saying God didn't bring us together, I'm saying I'm not going to let you use that to manipulate me. And yes, as much as I want to give anyone the benefit of the doubt, most people didn't just randomly end up in prison an innocent, misunderstood person. They know how to work systems and play games. People outside of prison do that all the time too.
It wasn't a random inquiry. She was serious.
A month or so later, I received another email from Australia and she was ready to make a deposit. She was getting everything together to come to America and get married! A few weeks later she made the final payment and we were ironing out details. She let me know when she got the Indiana, when they finished their premarital counseling class and how wonderful it was to spend an entire day with him! Now I couldn't wait to meet her. I had so many questions and I was wondering if I'd be able to ask them.
Who gets married at 8AM?
Her wedding time was at 8 AM. I had to get up really, really early to get there in time. It's times like this when I really have to consider what my actual price is to do something? I am a business and I am a human being. How am I going to combine the two right now, in this situation? Prisons have dress codes and rules and am I doing this right? How can I meet the security rules as easily as possible? Is the chaplain going to be nice to me or judgmental like the others? It's one thing to stand up to a rude person bargaining for a cheap wedding, it's another to interact graciously with prison personnel. (It turns out, prison personnel are usually very nice.)
I finally met the prison bride from Australia!
I had so many questions when I was finally face to face with this bride! Inquiring minds want to know... How did you meet? How does a woman from Australia and a man in prison in the United States, meet, fall in love, get engaged and then married? I really want to know, why are you doing this?
This bride is probably one of the nicest, most gentle, and unassuming people I've ever met. She was happy to talk. It turns out she is a native Aborigine. That's why she preferred a woman to perform the wedding. She wasn't under an illusions. She is a very practical person. Except for, you know, the whole, marrying a prisoner on the other side of the world thing.
Meet a prisoner online!
It turns out there are websites like prisonpenpals.net and writeaprisoner.com, just to name a few. The groom was in prison for doing something really stupid when he was young and stupid. They met on one of these pen pal sites and their relationship just took off. They email, snail mail and talk on the phone. They had amazing things in common. They were both born to alcoholic mothers, had never known their fathers and were raised by their grandmothers. They both had an almost identical picture of their fourth birthdays with one hand holding onto their grandmother and a cupcake in the other hand. They were able to open up to each other and developed a very good friendship. After a year, she came to visit. She was the first person to ever visit him in prison. It was love at first sight. Now, they were getting married.
The wedding vows
The bride was a very gentle person. You can tell a lot about a couple when they share their wedding vows. They had written pages to share with each other. They both had so much time to think about themselves and to see a reflection of themselves in the other. It's actually very common to have pages and pages written for wedding vows at these types of weddings. When you have nothing but time you have a lot of time to think and dream.
In his vows, he was moved by the fact she liked to save baby birds and injured animals. It clearly softened him. When she had driven out to the prison that morning she was concerned for a dead animal on the road. She asked the chaplain, who would come and take care of the animal? His very practical answer was "the buzzards will take care of it." (That's how it works in rural America. If it were a deer, it would have bee dinner, not so for a racoon.) She just didn't understand that and asked twice, very concerned for the animal. She still didn't seem to quite get his answer when he gave it the second time.
If soul mates exist, these two definitely are. It was obvious they had found something special in the other.
Did she marry a prisoner for a Green Card?
Their reason for getting married was because they love each other. He still had several years on his sentence. They literally had nothing to gain from the other but love. I asked her if she was going to go home and apply for a green card and move to the US. Some people I spoke with thought that might be her motivation. You can apply for a green card on the grounds of marriage even if you are married to a prisoner. She said that was not in the plans yet. She was going to go home and save up enough money to come back and visit again. There was no reason to move to America just so she could visit him more easily.
This was such a different situation from most weddings
It's such a weird situation. Plenty of people have fallen in love from long distances over snail mail. It's a wonderful way to really get to know a person. But not many people do that these days. People use instant messaging, Skype, facetime, a telephone and texting. I have a romantic ceremony that I use for just about every couple for whom I perform a small ceremony but it really doesn't work in this situation. They haven't built a relationship leading to marriage like so many couples do. They won't be able to consummate the marriage for years. They might get a kiss and hug. They may be able to sit at a table for a few hours and hold hands.
Giving marriage new meaning
This experience really gave me an opportunity to think about the romance of the situation and the nature of marriage and human relationships. What is marriage really? It's something different for every couple. What words could I share with them on their wedding day? What ceremony could I write and print out for them so they could keep it to reflect on later?
I really loved this couple. I was moved by their relationship. I felt like I'd know the bride my whole life and I still feel connected to her in a way. I was glad to have a long drive home to think about it. I thought about all the time they had to think too.
After spending the morning listening, I concluded that these two people are definitely soul mates on some level. I think they had a lot of deep feelings they needed to share, not just about love and superficial things, but feelings about themselves and where they fit in the world. I think that some things we need to share are so sacred and scary that sharing them with a person locked up on the other side of the world is the only way you might truly feel safe.
Now, let's get real...
Now, let's get real. If you think all prison marriages are like this. They aren't. This is one couple, one marriage, one relationship. This is a beautiful couple and a beautiful story. His crime and his circumstances are his. I have an incredibly open mind to whatever your story might be. But generally, if you really want to marry a prisoner, they don't make it easy, and there is a reason for that.
Everyone loves a good story. Some people love a good love story. Throw a wedding into that love story and will have a hit. People fall for the romance. The wildly popular Netflix series, Orange is the New Black, had a wedding that was entertaining and romantic in it's own way. It was Hollywood mixed with real life so it wasn't entirely accurate. You definitely don't get a conjugal visit at the end of your prison wedding. You might get an extra hour in the regular visiting room. Orange is The New Black made some good points, when you are in prison you have to get permission to get married. It's a privilege you have to earn. You have the right to get married and they technically can't stop you from getting married. They can, however, make it difficult.
Getting married as a prisoner is a privilege you need to earn
In real life, there are certain requirements you have to meet to get married in prison. The prison's I've dealt with in Indiana have required a full day class for the couple getting married. The prisoner may have to read other books and take other classes to get approval. Even after everything is approved, the prisoner has to be on their best behavior and not get into any trouble up to the wedding day.
You have to provide your own wedding officiant
You have to hire your own wedding officiant to perform your wedding in prison. The prison chaplain has to approve your wedding but doesn't perform it. There is a good chance that you will have to hire a professional wedding officiant because most religious people are not going to approve of the marriage based on their own religious reasons. They are allowed to do that. In my experience, the last thing the prison chaplain wants is for you to get married. But, you have a legal right to get married so if you meet the criteria, you can get married.
Prison paperwork and approvals
Once you are approved you have to get approval to bring things like flowers and even your rings into the prison. I've had to have my ceremony scripts approved. The bride has had to have her written vows approved. Someone else has to bring the papers in. Even the pen used to sign the paper needs to be delivered by prison personnel. Rings have to be metal, no stones. You need to provide a receipt that the ring cost no more than $35. It turns out Walmart has a plain metal band for just under that amount. I'm thinking that's probably not a coincidence. They actually sell a lot of rings online but they have a ring in the store that is just under the allowed amount.
Legal paperwork - Obtaining a marriage license
In order to be legally married you will need a marriage license. Getting a marriage license to marry a prisoner has extra steps that need to be taken. You'll have to get the license in the county where the prison is because they will be set up to deal with the paperwork. You have to make phone calls to get the information you need. You'll need to fill out extra paperwork with the prison and the clerk. Getting legally married is paperwork. It doesn't matter if you are a prisoner. Perhaps the extra paperwork to marry your prisoner is really no big deal. I mean, you are basically alone, filling your time without the one you love. That's just the way it is.
You might not be able to get a marriage license
Marriage laws are different in every state and then those laws are interpreted and enforced on a county level. In Indiana, both people getting married have to appear in person to obtain a marriage license. There are some counties that have a work-around when one person is not able to appear in person using affidavits or notaries. Over recent years some counties have declined to work-around the fact a prisoner can't appear in person and therefore won't issue a marriage license for a wedding in prison. They are within their legal rights to do so. It might just have to do with the current elected county clerk. If a new clerk is elected, they can choose to change the policy.
Dealing with the prison chaplain
The first prison wedding I did was filled with drama. I received a call from the bride looking for someone to perform the wedding. She was completely fed up with the chaplain and just wanted a neutral party she liked to add some positive energy to the wedding. She had been through a lot. She was a real fighter and refused to give up.
The chaplain had written the bride letters trying to get her to change her mind. The Chaplain then tried to get me to not perform the wedding. I had to provide documentation that I could legally perform a wedding. That has literally been the only time I was required by any authority to do that.
I understand the chaplains point of view, at least I think I do. He deals with convicted felons all day. He watches what happens. He genuinely cared for the well being of the bride and didn't want to see her throwing her life away legally married to an inmate. Professionally, he has to follow procedure, and maybe he overstepped his professional boundaries. Why should he care what she does with her life? On the other hand, she's a rather remarkable woman and perhaps he wanted to see her to other truly remarkable things.
The bride is a fighter. She'll fight for what's right and she'll fight for what she wants. She pushed right up to the very last moment. When we got to the prison the proper paperwork for that day hadn't been done because it wasn't a regular visit, it was a special visit that needed different written approval. You can't just show up on a regular visiting day and get married.
Looking back, I do believe that all the roadblocks were put up to somehow make her change the bride's mind. The first date was cancelled because of a snowstorm locking down the prison. They even made one of the guests go and change their clothes. (The convenience store up the road stocks sweat pants just for that occasion.) Even after verbal confirmation the paperwork was done and everything was approved, it still wasn't.
Finally, after a long wait, we finally got inside and performed the wedding.
Prison or Disney?
We performed the ceremony in the children's playroom in the visiting area. There were beautiful Disney murals on the walls. Later that day, when the bride posted the pictures online people who didn't know she was getting married thought she had actually gone to Florida, not prison. It was a nice little wedding. Most of it was really just the bride and groom sharing their pages long vows they'd written. We signed the license and filled up an entire disposable camera with pictures. It really wasn't all that weird. I went back to the waiting area and she spent some more time with her new hubby.
The silent ride home alone
I had driven to the prison with the bride and we had planned to go out for lunch afterward but when that time came we just weren't into it. We had to pick up our kids from school and the babysitters, so we drove home. In silence. I've performed small, private wedding for couples who were in definite need of a room while sealing their marriage with a kiss. Most newly married couples go out to dinner, have a party or reception and/or go on a honeymoon. The prisoner goes back to his cell and the other goes home alone. She just made one of the biggest promises of her life to stick with someone through thick and thin and until death do you part, and the door shut and locked behind her as she walked away from her wedding, with her husband on the other side. I wan't friends with the bride. We'd had lunch one day and talked love and soul mates. We got along great. I genuinely liked her. But I had no words during that drive. There was no hint of a joyous afterglow to be found.
The truth from a the view of a prison guard
A few weeks after that prison wedding I performed a small wedding for a couple and I told them the story of my trip to prison. It turned out the groom was a prison guard. He told me the story from the prison's point of view and it made a lot of sense. In a lot of ways, the prison and the chaplain were really looking out for the bride's best interest. It was something she was in no state to truly understand. As an engaged couple, you can go to pre-marital counseling and discuss the "what ifs." What if one of you fall ill? What if you can't have children? What if you lose a child? What if one of you cheats? It's all hypothetical until it happens and it's easy to say you'd do anything when you are just talking about it and perhaps trying to get the clergy member asking the questions to agree to marry you. The situation changes a lot if one of the people getting married is in prison. There is a reason they are in prison and the fact they are there gives you reason to not give them your blind trust. I'm not saying you can't trust them. I'm saying they should have to earn it.
A prisoner can only have so many visitors at one time...
The prisoner that got married in Orange Is The New Black was corresponding with men in order to get them to give her money. She just happened to fall in love with one of them. This is a very real thing that happens all the time. The groom that was a prison guard explained that it's not uncommon for one prisoner to be corresponding with several women at one time. The women think they are the only one and he loves her and only her. They don't know any better. It's not like they are part of the prison gossip mill. It doesn't work that way. They only know what the prisoner tells them. Often the prisoner will lead the woman on, telling them they will marry them when they get out. Then they get out and it turns out they are already married or they just leave them. While they were in prison, their fiance was putting money in their commissary account so they could eat well and buy things. Wouldn't you want to make sure the person you love eats well and is taken care of? Of course! Even if you get married in prison, you don't know what the prisoner will be like when they get out. Their life is probably not going to be easy. Not every prisoner is like this, not every relationship is like this. But the people who work in prisons see this type of behavior all the time. They see the prisoners as they are in prison. They see prisoners leave and they see them come back. They have a whole different understanding of the situation and it makes a lot of sense.
Three months later...
This particular bride was divorced about three months later. When I asked her why, she said he'd lied. He went back to taking drugs and got into trouble. She also said she knew. She knew from the beginning she shouldn't have done it. She knew him before he went to prison, she married him while he was in prison, and he's still in prison. She knew him. She also believed in him. She loved him unconditionally. She bent over backward to marry him. And he lied. And she divorced him. Looking back, she said the chaplain and the people at the prison were right. She just didn't want to listen. She had been paying his commissary. She was working on his appeal to get him out of prison. She was truly sacrificing for him. And he lied. Yes, you could laugh or be matter of fact and say "what did you expect? He's in prison?" But honestly, it has nothing to do with the prison part. People lie all the time. They may be big lies or they may be little lies. Maybe you get caught in a lie, maybe you don't. It's not only a chance you take in love, it's a chance you take in life.
There is two sides to every story. There is literally good and bad in everything. We all make sacrifices for the ones we love. Sometimes they are easy sacrifices, sometimes they are hard. I'm a wedding officiant that will marry pretty much anyone. I've see a lot. Some things I've understood, some things I probably only thought I understood. If you are reading this because you want to marry someone in prison, I may have made you feel better about your decision, whatever it is. Most of me wants to say I'm on the side of the prison. You should not marry a person in prison. But there is a part of me that says, follow your heart and life is a learning experience. We feel love and experience it more fully when we are actively giving love unconditionally.
Victoria Meyer, founder of Marry Me In Indy! LLC has been a wedding officiant in Indiana for over 9 years and married over 3000 couples. She shares her experiences and is happy to be your "Wedding Officiant Insider"