Fear, Loathing and Prison Romances

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Illustration by Ika Suhaimi via Flickr

Throughout my 27 years of confinement in the Washington Department of Corrections (WDOC), I have seen scores of women—from staff members to volunteers—barred from facilities or escorted off the premises after their prison romances were uncovered by internal investigators.

If maintaining security was paramount, these women would be encouraged to promptly vacate their positions once “compromised,” in the vernacular of WDOC, and begin visiting like other members of the public in a room that is under proper surveillance.

This would be the most effective means to address the security threat posed by these relationships.

However, the ugly truth is prison officials cannot stomach these women’s perceived “bewitchment” by convicts.

Jeremiah Bourgois

Jeremiah Bourgeois

For allowing a convict to turn into a friend or fiancé, ordinary disciplinary measures for violating prison policy aren’t enough. These women must feel the full weight of the system’s retribution, deterrence, disgust, and animus.

The roots of this attitude are much deeper than prejudice towards the incarcerated. There is a deeply racist dimension that exploded following the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education, which called for the integration of the public education system.

Segregationist opponents of integration worried that enabling impressionable children of different races to intermix would lead white children to see the humanity in (or find commonality with) their colored classmates—thereby undermining the historical meme that black people had “no rights which the white man was bound to respect,” as the Supreme Court stated a century before in the Dred Scott decision.

In interracial schools, white girls might eventually get it into their heads to date black boys, and vice versa, the argument went. Their “fears” were realized. Census data confirms the rise in interracial marriages since the Brown decision—more particularly since the Supreme Court’s 1967 Loving v. Virginia ruling outlawed state statutes banning miscegenation.

By 2015, 17 percent of all new marriages in the U.S. were between spouses of a different race or ethnicity.

The lesson is this: When opposite sexes have regular contact, romantic feelings can arise, even when the attraction is towards someone who is stigmatized, and an intimate relationship is taboo. Proximity is all that is necessary to overcome innumerable sessions of brainwashing that was intended to prevent women from falling into the hands of the wrong type of men.

This insight illustrates why unauthorized romances haunt the imaginings of prison officials who are tasked with maintaining security.

Safety and Security: Behind the Rhetoric

Washington State courts have recognized that “a detention facility is a unique place fraught with serious security dangers.”

But security dangers aside, prisoners (regardless of their skin complexions) are akin to the African-American boys whom racists believed were just itching to caress their daughters’ milky white skin. Like school integration and interracial marriages, the act of loving someone who has been legally and rhetorically framed as “other” begins to erode the distinction between “us” and “them.”

Hence, correctional administrators are willing to do anything to prevent the white female staff and volunteers from getting into the clutches of convicts.

It begins during training.

As with blacks during the era of segregation, prisoners are maligned by a narrative designed to ensure that these women toe the line.

Prisoners are master manipulators, so it goes. Every interaction is part of a stratagem to get authorities to do their bidding. Impressionable staff are warned that inmates spend countless hours plotting to gain the trust of female staff and volunteers—one seemingly benign request and innocent verbal exchange at a time.

So, it is incumbent upon her to never divulge any personal information because prisoners will use it for some devilish purpose.

For instance, revealing the fact that she is a mother could lead to a conversation about parenting and cause her to perceive the prisoner as a father who loves his children rather than simply a convicted felon who lost his liberty. Then, a slippery slope that began with talk about the kiddies can result in a budding romance and the introduction of contraband—just as the slick convict intended.

At one Washington prison, the volunteer trainings take place in building that is also home to a wall-sized display case of prisoner-made shanks. The case is hung right outside of the bathrooms and ostensibly serves as a visual reminder to newly minted volunteers of the true insidious nature of the incarcerated men they will be interacting with.

Whether the rhetorical devices used in furtherance of this effort are hyperbolic, the putative purpose for this training is to reduce the likelihood that contraband will be smuggled in and out of the facility by lovelorn women with security clearances and prevent them from engaging in a host of other illicit activities for and at the behest of prisoners.

Yet despite the rhetoric, proximity wins out time and again.

Strangely enough, the very policies implemented by correctional systems actually undermine internal security because they often lead the “compromised” women to continue their clandestine relationships rather than come clean.

WDOC prohibits former staff members and volunteers from visiting a prisoner for three years.

This is surprisingly harsh for a “liberal” state. The wait period is well over three times the national average for former volunteers. Indeed, 74 percent of all states have a wait period of one year or less. Of those states, 71 percent impose no wait time at all.

Given that the WDOC waiting period is the average length of most prison sentences, it comes as no surprise to me that so many women decide to go underground once smitten. Far better to enjoy the company of a secret beau than spend three years without them.

Instead of strengthening security, such policies end up weakening it. Prison officials appear to be willfully blind to the reality that delayed gratification has little appeal to a person who has the option to use stealth to remain close to someone that they care about. Yet each passing day provides another opportunity for the nightmare scenarios feared by correctional administrators to play out.

The drugs.

The cellphones.

The sex.

The escapes.

Ironically, the Machiavellian prisoners that these women were forewarned about in training are the actual beneficiaries of such policies.

They rejoice in outcomes that ensure a female staff member or volunteer will decide to cloak her romance with a prisoner—who is running game unbeknownst to her—instead of quitting. The last thing these schemers want is for her to be under the watchful eyes of the guards inside of the visiting room.

Words of Wisdom

Allyson West, Executive Director for the Volunteer Reentry Program at San Quentin, has sage advice for volunteers who decide to pursue relationships with prisoners:

If you fall in love, whatever kind of love that is—platonic, romantic, whatever, but most commonly romantic love—all you have to do, once you realize you want to cross that line, is quit the program. Take a month off, get on his visiting list, and go have a great relationship…. in my 18 years here, I’ve never met one (inmate) that wasn’t worthy of our love. So if you fall in love, you go fall in love, I will dance at your wedding. I will give you away if you quit the program and protect the program and protect yourself and protect him.

Go live happily ever after and I will give you every blessing. So that’s the right way. Because people are people, and you put people together, there are going to be some attractions that happen sometimes. And if you want to act on it, then you just have to do it appropriately.

As for volunteers in Washington State prisons, they will undoubtedly continue to use stealth and secrecy due to WDOC policy.

Jeremiah Bourgeois is a regular contributor to TCR and has been serving a life sentence in Washington State since he was fourteen years old. He welcomes comments from readers.

2 thoughts on “Fear, Loathing and Prison Romances

  1. What is missing from Mr. Bourgeois story is that intimate and/or romantic relationships between the incarcerated and the employees is about the imbalance of power. Employees are in positions of authority and to engage in intimate and/or romantic behavior is prohibited because of this power imbalance and potential for sexual misconduct or worse perpetrated by an employee. The rules are in place to protect the incarcerated.

  2. Hello Rob. You make an excellent point. My point, however, was that there is no basis to prohibit visits once a person is no longer a volunteer or staff member. There is no longer any power imbalance at that point. But simply malice on the part of administrators.

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