On the surface I am your traditional bride to be planning my wedding – I am choosing my dress, my husband-to-be’s ring – getting all the butterflies and counting down the days until THE day that I say I Do and marry the love of my life, my best friend, my soulmate.
There will be no flowers. No cake. No guest list and my dress has to adhere to a strict dress code.
The reason for this is that my fiancé is 15 000 km away, in prison. In the United States of America and him and I have been on this journey for the last 4 years.
I am a Prison Wife.
(Before I continue I have to add a disclaimer that he did not kill anyone nor did he commit any sexual crimes).
That always seems to be the first question I am asked, well one of two – the first one being: “What did he do?” The answer to that is not relevant to this article (although I am pretty open about it so will answer anyone who asks ) so I will focus on the one that is – “How did you two meet?” I have to admit from the outside looking in – its exceptionally unusual? A middle-aged single mom from South Africa being engaged to an inmate in an American prison?
I guess the best place to start would be the beginning as there was a significant chain of events that led to myself and James meeting. If any one of those steps had not been in place – we would never have crossed paths.
I had always had a fascination with the USA – from when I was very young. And it was due to a pop up around 10 years that I saw while browsing the web one day that led me to first writing inmates. The pop up directed me to the Write a Prisoner website and I thought that it could be really interesting to write someone incarcerated in the USA so I selected two inmates and that’s where my journey began.
I wrote to WB and JB for a good few years (W has since been released, JB and I still correspond) – In the beginning I knew nothing about prisons, how they worked – the rules etc – I am somewhat now of an expert on the Federal and State prison systems in the US and there isn’t much I cant tell you.
Initially, I just wrote letters to W and J, and due to our wonderful postal service, this became a challenge to keep our correspondence up. I then learnt that the Federal prison system could correspond via email and this sounded far easier – so I found a penpal within the Federal system – JF and I grew to be close friends too. So much so that I actually flew out to Texas after we had been corresponding for a year to meet him.
That was my first international trip EVER lol – believe me I was judged so harshly for embarking on such a trip – to fly all that way to go visit someone in prison? Not many people could understand but it was an amazing trip – I was scared as hell my first visit day and did question my sanity OFTEN…but going through the whole process of being checked into visit the guards were totally fascinated once they heard my accent and where I was from that they really helped ease my nerves!
A few of his friends were jealous of the friendship him and I had, and they asked him if I could not help them get someone to write to too?
I have to add that another thing I have learned over the years is that many inmates get abandoned by friends/family once they are behind those walls. They stop writing, calls go unanswered. It can be a VERY lonely life for most which are why they turn to gangs etc as it gives them a sense of family and belonging.
So I set up a website, a FB page and I started posted ads on Facebook for all of JF’s friends to hopefully find someone to correspond with. This opened me up to a whole different world on social media and I got to make friends with a lot of people doing the same thing I was …it’s a different animal that – the prison pen pal world lol you just have to search Facebook for prison penpal or inmate penpal to know what I am talking about.
I remember the day clearly that I had seen James ad on one of the groups I was in. As soon as I saw his picture I was drawn to it… I would scroll past, but then scroll up, look and then just keep scrolling. I saw his post for a penpal a good few times and had that same feeling each time I saw it.
I was chatting to an online friend one day and she asked if I didn’t want another penpal..at that stage I really didn’t – I was happy with the few that I had. She was rather insistent so I said to her, ok, who is he.
And. It was James.
So James and I started corresponding January 2016. We correspond via email and we are also able to send short 30-second video emails to one another. At that point James was in a Level 4 facility so was only able to make one phone 15-minute call a day.
Our relationship grew over those emails and those 15 minute calls a day. Our relationship grew without the physical aspect. We got to know each other on an emotional level – on a spiritual level. Our connection slowly grew slowly but deeply. I was terrified – I couldn’t rationalise how I could grow to care so much for someone that I had never met?
So October 2016 I got on a plane and made the trip to Ohio to meet James for the first time – I had to know (before our relationship got any more serious) if the connection we felt would be as strong in person as it was over email and on the phone. I had to know if this was a relationship worth pursuing.
I clearly remember the day we met -the nerves were INSANE – and I was an hour late! I had driven from Tennessee to Ohio and forgotten to set my watch forward an hour – I was meant to be a visit at 8am but I only got there at 9 – I was so panicked when I got there and relieved they still allowed me in lol!
I remember when he walked through those doors the first time – the first thing I noticed was his smile – then his piercing blue eyes – we hugged and it was amazing – it felt right. It felt like I belonged.
As I flew from so far I got four days visit from 8am to 5pm – we had such a good time – drinking coffee, eating bad vending machine food. The one thing that stood out was we spent every minute of those days talking -there was no awkward silences – no arbitrary chit chat. We really spoke – we spoke about our pasts, our futures, our hopes, our dreams and our fears. This visit did exactly what it was meant to – it cemented the deep bond that he and I had formed over 100’s of emails and daily phone calls.
It wasn’t a day or so after we got back that he called and asked if I had adjusted my status on FB yet. I asked him to what? So he said to engaged…I said to who? He said to me – I laughed and said James you haven’t asked me yet..so he then asked me if I would marry him and I, without a doubt knew that he was the man I wanted to spend the rest of my life with.
I have flown out now 4 times to visit, June 2017 I took my children with me to meet him. I went alone in April 2018 and then the kids and I flew out this past July to visit him again. My children and he adore each other too and speak on the phone and correspond via email too. I have lost some friends on this journey. I have been judged very harshly. But those closest to me know him for the man he is and for how happy he makes me.
I know a lot of people will think that he is just using me for money (as contrary to popular belief? Inmates do NOT get given everything they need in prison) but in fact, it is James who provides for me. He often sends me money home and sees it as his duty to care for me. He is an incredible artist and that is one of the ways in which he is able to support himself and to help me.
Our bond continues to strengthen daily – they now have Wifi in the prison and they have tablets from which they can make calls – so we speak around 2 hrs every day. We email and we write letters. Our bond has deepened to such an extent we feel what the other is feeling. I know when he has gone through something at the prison – he will call and I will just say “what happened”- and I am always right…he had just been through a shakedown or an interrogation.
We are now also able to have 30-minute video visits so I try and schedule one or two visits a week.
This life, however, is not for the faint-hearted. Our relationship is certainly tested, constantly. He has had times where he has been on the phone and email restriction for a few months, where we could only write letters. We just went through a year-long visit restriction where I could not see him for a year – either in person or via video. Sometimes he loses visit, email and phone privileges at the same time.
There are times where he has been sent to solitary confinement and we have no contact at all. But through all this, we just emerge stronger than before.
We are now planning for our future together. He will be released early 2025 and he is wanting to study to be an Addiction counsellor while still inside as he feels he could really help other people who went through what he did and to perhaps prevent many other people from making the same mistakes that got him to lose 18 years of his life.
It wasn’t a lifelong dream to become a prison wife. It was a life long dream to find a man that truly makes me happy, that dream came true when I met him. His location is not an issue for me so it shouldn’t be for anyone else.
Our relationship is based on letters, time-restricted and recorded phone calls and visits which are few and spaced far apart. I am judged for loving a man I couldn’t imagine leaving. A man whose name is now a number. Some days are hard, some nights I get lonely, his letters and emails give me strength at the right times and our memories pull me through. I know our life isn’t what its meant to be right now, but one day we will have all our dreams
Tanya is an active Mom to two teenage girls, takes fitness seriously and bakes delicious custom cakes.