Wedding bells do ring behind bars
BY CARY ASPINWALL World Staff Writer
Saturday, August 04, 2012
8/04/12 at 7:35 AM
If first comes love, then comes marriage, sometimes an armed robbery or murder conviction delays said nuptials and means wedding bells will ring behind bars.
It's not an everyday occurrence in Oklahoma's Department of Corrections, but offender marriages happen often enough that the agency has a specific policy.
Officially, the DOC does not encourage marriage while incarcerated, though "reasonable accommodations are made to assist offenders who are legally competent to become married in accordance with Oklahoma law," the policy states.
The Tulsa World reviewed more than 150 applications filled out since 2009 by Oklahoma inmates and their fiancés requesting marriage behind prison walls.
There are no shotgun weddings in prison. Fiancés must be on the offender's "approved visitors" list at least six months before filling out the marriage application. The couple must complete premarital counseling, and if either has been married before, they must submit a valid divorce decree with their application.
And then they wait. Each DOC facility can only designate one to two days per year on which to conduct marriage ceremonies, according to the policy.
At many state prisons, wedding vows are exchanged rarely, if ever. Several prisons reported no applications for offender marriages during the time frame for which the World requested records.
It's also far less common at women's prisons - in fact, Eddie Warrior Correctional Center has only hosted one marriage ceremony in the past 14 years.
Several of the applications the World reviewed were for marriages to inmates at Dick Conner Correctional Center, a medium-security unit housing more than 950 inmates in Hominy.
Records showed that from 2009 to June 2012, there were 10 inmate weddings at Dick Conner. Sixteen applications remain pending, 12 inmates declined to complete the application process and 24 applications involved offenders who transferred or completed their sentences.
Althea Flanner and her fiance, inmate Lee Lover, applied to get married at Dick Conner in 2010. They waited long enough that Lover was transferred to a lower-security facility in Lawton before they could wed. Now they'll likely wait until he's paroled or released to marry.
"We've been waiting this long, it won't hurt to wait a while longer," Flanner said.
They've known each other since 1986, they dated in their 20s and went their separate ways. He ended up in prison on shooting and drug charges.
"Once you start getting around the wrong crowd and get used to that fast money ..." she said.
They became reacquainted when she was visiting her nephew at Dick Conner. He wants to get out, get a job, work hard and get married, she said.
"When they have somebody in their corner to change for, it keeps them on the right track," she said.
Warden Terry Martin said Dick Conner averages about two weddings per year, and they're not much trouble for the facility. "It's your very basic wedding ceremony - they read the vows and it's over," Martin said.
The chaplain usually officiates and the warden is not a witness.
"They usually bring family," he said. As a courtesy, Dick Conner does have a digital camera to capture the big moment (cell phones, so useful for snapshots, are expressly forbidden in Oklahoma prisons).
The only logistical headache occurs before the wedding, when transporting the prisoner to the Osage County courthouse to sign the marriage record book, a cost paid by the inmate. But most prisons transport inmates to courthouses on a daily basis, for trials and court appearances anyway.
Some women have even chosen to marry inmates serving life sentences, with little hope of ever living as husband and wife under the same roof.
"It doesn't make a whole lot of sense," Martin said. "But if they want to do it, and follow the policies and procedures ... I've seen it on more than one occasion."
The majority of women marrying men incarcerated at Dick Conner have a history with the offender, he said. Or they've met through a family member and developed a relationship through visiting days and letters.
Or both, in the case of Muskogee resident Tameika Milton, who is waiting patiently to marry inmate #477905, Archie Morris Jr., serving a 10-year sentence for manslaughter.
Morris was convicted in Muskogee County for the 2003 shooting death of Joseph Gene Smith, in what authorities described as a drug deal "gone haywire."
Milton has known Morris since high school, before he "got caught up in a bad situation" involving drugs and gangs at age 20, she said.
Milton ran into Morris' mother in Muskogee last year and asked about him, and learned he was at Dick Conner. She began to visit and write letters, and well, they fell in love.
"He's my world, I will say that," she said. "He's a very delightful person to be around. He has a big heart and is very caring."
Morris has nearly finished his 10-year sentence, and he's "very remorseful" about the decisions that landed him in prison, Milton said. He wants to help younger black men stay away from trouble he got into as a youth, she said.
He asked Milton to marry him around Valentine's Day, and they filled out their applications and began waiting. Maybe this summer, they were told.
Morris will finish his sentence in August, so more than likely, their wedding will happen outside of prison. They'd like to have a church wedding with family, but money is tight. And, Milton said: "Daddy is still kind of iffy" about her marrying a man with a manslaughter conviction.
But prison has reformed her fiancé, she said.
"He will definitely be in church when living with me," she said. "You gotta put God first and everything falls into place."
Offenders requesting to marry while in Oklahoma's Department of Corrections custody must complete marriage counseling with a chaplain or "qualified party," according to policy.
The policy also outlines topics for the counseling, taken from PREP: "The Prevention and Relationship Enhancement Program."
1. Foundation of marriage and danger signs for trouble in marriage
2. Safety, structure and communication
3. Filters, speaker/listener technique
4. Issues and events
6. Negative communication, anger and constructive griping
8. Problem solving
10. Ground rules
11. Core beliefs systems
12. The sensual/sexual relationship
Original Print Headline: Wedding bells do ring behind bars
Cary Aspinwall 918-581-8477
Althea Flanner sits with a photograph of herself with her fiance, Oklahoma inmate Lee Lover (right), and Lover's father, Lee Lover Sr. The couple became reacquainted after he was sent to prison. JAMES GIBBARD/Tulsa World