book review

Love Behind Bars Is Possible. It’s Just Absurdly Hard.

Photo-Illustration: Vulture; Photo: Simon & Schuster

I’ve been incarcerated in New York State for 20 years straight, serving a 28-years-to-life sentence for murder and selling drugs. I’ve become an immersive journalist in the joint. I’ve also been married twice, meeting both wives from ads I placed on prison pen-pal websites.

My first marriage lasted three years, 2012 to 2015. I broke it off because I didn’t feel the connection when we started conjugals — the visits officially called the Family Reunion Program and unofficially called “trailers,” which allow some incarcerated people to spend 48 hours with loved ones in a private module home within the prison. I’m still technically married to my second wife, Danielly. She’s fun and feisty, Dominican and a dominatrix (but I ain’t no sub). We loved and hated and separated. “You want people to forgive you for murder,” she often tells me, “but why can’t you forgive me for cheating?” Still, we stayed friends.

New York is one of four states that offer conjugals, but not every prison has them. And if you have a heinous sex crime on your record, then you probably won’t be approved. The visits are considered a privilege. Danielly and I have been on conjugal visits but not consistently. To be approved, you have to piss in a cup under a guard’s gaze. This one guard in Sing Sing would be in a small bathroom with you, hands on his hips, staring. Twice, because of my anxiety, I couldn’t, and our conjugal was canceled.

Although I’ve experienced love in prison, these relationships are difficult to sustain. When I discovered my passion and created a full-blown career as a writer, that became my priority. Recently, lying on the bunk of my cell in Sullivan Correctional Facility in upstate New York, I read Elizabeth Greenwood’s Love Lockdown: Dating, Sex, and Marriage in America’s Prisons, an immersive journalistic account of five couples who all met while at least one of them was incarcerated. As an incarcerated journalist, I’m a bit skeptical of outsiders who write about my world. The true-crime genre and reality TV shows like Love After Lockup can be pretty exploitative. I think of the famous opening lines of Janet Malcolm’s The Journalist and the Murderer, in which she examines the psychopathology of journalism: “Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible. He is a kind of confidence man, preying on people’s vanity, ignorance, or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse.”

Yet Greenwood doesn’t betray her subjects in Love Lockdown. She has described her first book, Playing Dead: A Journey Through the World of Death Fraud from 2016, as exploring “the idea of how one could ‘die’ in this lifetime, yet never escape one’s essential self.” Now Greenwood asks if we can “find love and vivacity in the ugliest of places? And what are the prisons we erect for ourselves?”

The five couples Greenwood follows seem to be looking for that elusive happily-ever-after love. She interviews two of them postprison in their homes and reconstructs their love stories. With the other three, she follows the progress of their relationships over five years. She visits the incarcerated partners in prison and corresponds with and nestles up to the prison wives (and one prison husband) on the outside. She attends a wedding in prison and a convention for prison wives, and she stays with one prison wife, Journey, in her home, shadowing her routine.

Journey, or Jo, is a no-nonsense mother of two and former Army medic in her mid-40s who lives in Georgia. She also once worked as a guard in a jail. Her guy is Benny, bald-headed, prison buff, and serving nine years across the country in Oregon. Benny is a funny, glib knock-around guy who’s looking to stay away from drugs in the joint and earn a college degree. He has made a mess of his life, being in and out of the system for much of it, and suffers from untreated addiction and alcoholism. (Many in prison do; there isn’t much recovery in corrections.) He’s in for attempting to run over his ex-girlfriend and then crashing and flipping her car with her baby in the back seat.

Greenwood also introduces us to Sherry and Damon, who are transgender and bisexual, respectively, and cell neighbors in the same male prison. Here, the author both corresponds with and visits the couple individually. She attempts to let good writing make up for her limited access: “Sherry glides into the visiting room of a maximum-security prison in the Midwest like it’s her personal runway.” (I know the walk from my own observations — that fierce cocktail of confidence, defiance, and fear.) Then there’s Jacques, a debonair former diplomat of Belgian extraction who has worked for the UN and the Canadian government, who marries Evié, a former dominatrix now in prison. She robbed some of her former clients, and two wound up dead. “What of this prison husband,” Greenwood writes, “an accomplished, handsome man with a French accent and a spy novel career, who married a woman serving at least fifty-five years behind bars?”

The last two couples, who stay together after prison, were enabled by Jesus Christ and conjugals. Joe and Sheila, who now live in Manhattan, met through a church-ministry pen-pal program. Sheila was an accomplished New York Times journalist, and Joe, like me, was a drug dealer who killed a rival; he received 25 years to life. Sheila was with Joe for ten years while he was incarcerated, visiting him on conjugals every few months until he was paroled in 2016. Meanwhile, Crystal, a Christian girl from the South, married Fernando, a wrongfully convicted Dominican man from Washington Heights, who was exonerated after 18 years and received millions in a settlement. They moved to North Carolina and bought a big house and four foreign cars, all white for innocence. But even with their happy ending, Fernando and Crystal, and the two children they made on conjugals, carry with them the PTSD of incarceration. In 18 years, Crystal never canceled a visit.

After I read this, I mentioned the couple’s story to Danielly, implying that so many people seem more solid than we ever were. She didn’t like that. Truth is, it’s hard to bring love into prison. I remember the first time Danielly came to visit me in Attica, near Buffalo, back in 2010. She boarded a bus the night before on 34th Street in Manhattan. Twelve hours later, at 10 a.m., I was called to the visit room, but when I arrived, they told me my visit had been terminated. I heard a woman yelling down the hall. I learned later that a female guard at an earlier checkpoint had told Danielly to keep her drape wrapped around her body to cover her cleavage and ass, but she wanted to show me her curves so she lost the drape in the visiting room. The guard saw this and told her to leave. The woman I heard yelling at the guards was Danielly: “You just mad cause you ain’t got no ass, bitch!” Now when I tell her I’m writing about this, Danielly laughs.

Sometimes Greenwood gets bogged down by digressions — as when she belabors the Prison Rape Elimination Act, or PREA, trying to explain what the law means for Damon and Sherry’s relationship on the inside. “PREA has nothing to do with me and Sherry’s relationship,” Damon writes to Greenwood. “PREA was implemented to prevent rapes, sexual harassment, and things of that nature … All the raping and stuff like that is ‘non-existent’ in 2Day’s prison system.” Personally, I’ve seen staff use PREA to be punitive toward consensual partners on the inside; prisoners can lose privileges or be forced to stay in their cells for days. But mostly I see prisoners making false allegations against staff and other prisoners to get moved to different cellblocks or transferred to a different prison. In the end, the biggest conflict gay couples face is the American prison system itself: It’s mean-spirited and homophobic. I was happy to see Greenwood give a shout-out to Black & Pink, one of the few nonprofits that advocate for LGBTQ+ people in here.

Most of the time, Greenwood handles this kind of background well, getting back to the characters just when you’re missing them. Through her book, I learned about the InterNational Prisoners Family Conference. I learned that a woman named Shani Dee from the Bronx ran a group called Love Lockdown (no relation to the book) and that there was an online community with several chapters nationally called Strong Prison Wives & Families. I even learned a researcher named Dr. Avon Hart-Johnson gave the plight of the prison wife a name: “vicarious imprisonment.” Even though I’ve had plenty of firsthand experiences with prison relationships, I didn’t know about any of these organizations. My experience and perspective were limited to my own plight.

This made me think back to a moment with Danielly in the visit room days after a Christmas gathering at her mom’s house. Out of the blue, she started to cry. She told me how both her sisters had had their husbands with them, and she had overheard one ask the other, “Why’d she marry a murderer doing life in Attica?”

“I ain’t no murderer. I killed a man years ago, and I’m paying for that,” I ranted. “But that’s not who I am. I’m a journalist, and I’m doing much flyer work than their husbands.” I was making strides with my career, but my response was all about me and my ego. I didn’t comfort her in that moment, and that’s what she needed. Some prison wives are better at handling the void that comes with being alone, and some husbands in prison are better at filling that void for their wives. But in many ways, this is the Kafkaesque life of the prison wife: She has intimate insights and connections with a man most people see as a villain, and when she talks about her husband, it seems sad — she seems like an oddball for being in the relationship in the first place.

In another chapter, Greenwood explores the peculiar fascination women have with true crime, interviewing a woman named Samantha Spiegel whom SF Weekly declared the “most successful murder groupie” in 2010 when she was 19 years old. Greenwood observes how much prison wives hate to be mistaken for those who seek out relationships with famous killers. “We are not those groupies you see on TV,” Jo tells her. “Our lives are actually quite boring.”

A couple of years ago, the lurid HLN true-crime series Inside Evil did an episode on me called “Killer Writing.” When the producers told me Chris Cuomo wanted to come interview me in Sing Sing, they left out a word in the name of the series: evil. I wanted so much to be seen as a journalist, but I realized they saw me only as a murderer. I felt betrayed. Having had this experience with the dark side of the media monster, I found one part of Greenwood’s book particularly troubling. She watches Met While Incarcerated, a Canadian documentary that dramatizes Benny’s crime — and then she starts second-guessing her own reportage. This is why I’m troubled by the popular true-crime genre, which seems to make people, particularly women, expect the worst in human behavior. Alice Bolin speaks to this in her Vulture essay “The Ethical Dilemma of Highbrow True Crime.” True-crime documentaries tend to use visual tricks — dark background sounds, blown-up mug shots, close-ups of the eyes — that evoke visceral responses, and Greenwood allows that framing to persuade her to see her subject more darkly. She reexamines an old interview she did with Benny and starts to view him in a different light.

“I feel angry at myself for straining so hard to see redemption,” Greenwood writes of Benny, “in what could easily be a pattern of repeated trauma and dysfunction.” At one point, she even references the famous true-crime show Dirty John with regard to Benny’s superficial charm and begins to fear for Jo. “I can’t shake my queasiness over Benny’s charges and the violent attitudes and actions toward women he has expressed.”

When Greenwood musters up the courage to ask Jo if she fears Benny could turn dark on her, Jo’s response shows the strength and compassion of a prison wife. She explains that Benny has a lot of “damage and pain. All of us, when we get shook hard enough, have that capacity to have that top pop off.” Jo, who works as an addiction counselor, continues, “I guess for me it’s a little bit easier, because I’m around these people all day long, every day, by virtue of the kind of work I do … I know my people.”

Some readers may still be left wondering: After all this sacrifice, is the sex any good? The word sex is there in red on the cover of this book, right next to a blurb from Lisa Taddeo, whose book Three Women is all about desire. “It was 90 percent the trailer visits, to be frank. We got excited by the whole romantic arrangement of it all,” Jacques says of his relationship with Evié. Greenwood asks if he would have married Evié if she were in a state that didn’t allow conjugals. He doesn’t think so: “I’m a lover and a romantic. I’m not a monk.” Here Greenwood digresses into the history of conjugals, which is interesting but not sexy. If she had asked, I feel Jacques and Evié would have given up the goods. But Love Lockdown stays pretty PG-13.

This is as sexy as Greenwood gets: “Evié was nervous about her performance. As she told a friend, ‘I’m scared to death. I talk a lot of shit, but I just may freeze,’” she writes. “She got some good coaching from her fellow prisoners on how to give a blow job and do a sexy striptease. And, per her memoir, the coaching paid off, as she quips: ‘9 1/2 Weeks has nada on 4 Nights & 5 Days, absolutely nothing.’”

In the end, Greenwood argues that conjugals make us feel human and incentivize good behavior. They do. I behaved and was allowed a temporary escape from prison, and I’ll always be grateful to both of my wives for doing that for me. Although the relationships didn’t last, my memories of the moments do. Awkward sex. Good sex. Nasty sex with filthy talk. Making love with sweet talk. So when I found myself reading a book about couples who got to experience conjugal visits in prison, I expected the pages to reveal a bit more erotic heat. Yet I understand how adding spice could seem exploitative, too — it’s not as if Greenwood is the one who experienced the conjugals herself but is now refusing to share. (I tried to offer a steamy scene of my own here, but my editor told me to simmer down.) While Greenwood doesn’t delve into the intimacy of the flesh, she does come to a realization about the complicated intimacies of these relationships.

Greenwood explains how she approached this book with the typical binary questions: “Are these women out of their minds? Are these relationships real?” What she learns, and explains in beautiful prose, is that love can indeed be found in the ugliest of places. “Prison relationships are sometimes a bubble of heaven against a backdrop of hell,” she writes. “They are both safe for women who have been hurt, emotionally or physically, and also the most naked ledge to stand on.”

Love Behind Bars Is Possible. It’s Just Absurdly Hard.