This article was published in collaboration with the Marshall Project.
If there's anything that might be expected to bring some kind of positive energy, a dose of hope, to Rikers Island, it's a wedding. It didn't hurt that the day I visited the jail to marry two women eight weeks ago, the place was filled with sunshine, making the facility—or at least the barbed wire surrounding it—sparkle.
My job was to marry an incarcerated woman to her fiancée living on the outside. Tiquesha and Samantha were both in their 20s, and they had been together five years; Tiquesha had spent more than one of those years in Rikers and might be looking at several more upstate in Bedford Hills Correctional Facility.
But we didn't discuss the crime or her possible sentence. On the woman's wedding day, those details didn't seem relevant. Instead, as Samantha and I produced our IDs and went through security, left our bags and phones in a locker, got our hands stamped (twice), sat on one bus, then another, and finally waited on a bench for our escort, we talked about her relationship with Tiquesha and why they were getting married.
Both from New York, both raised by grandmothers, they met when a friend of Samantha's braided Tiquesha's hair. After dating for a while, they knew they were meant to be. Before Tiquesha was arrested, the couple had planned on getting married and starting a family. One of the women would undergo IVF to fertilize eggs; the other would carry the embryo.
Rikers had put the baby-making on hold, but the marriage was going ahead as planned. Samantha had obtained the license and arranged for the authorities at the jail to have Tiquesha sign it and send it back to the city clerk. She contacted me after her co-worker found my weddings website online, and we'd waited for the approved date.
This may sound easy; it wasn't. Samantha had to learn the rules every step of the way, and every step seemed like a roadblock. For one thing, nobody had told her that getting married required a ceremony, even in one of America's most notorious jails—so I was brought in at the panicky last minute.
Samantha and I met for the first time in Queens, at the bus stop that takes you over the bridge to the Rikers complex. By some coincidence of fashion sense, we were dressed identically: black pants and white shirts done up to the collar. We each carried a folder—hers with the marriage license, mine the text of the ceremony. She was comfortable with the visiting procedure, having been there numerous times, so I followed her lead.
I'd heard a lot about Rikers Island—all of it bad. But I was there to perform a specific function, and at first, I didn't see the grim aspects I had read about or seen fictionalized on television. The corrections officers were good-humored and friendly. All of them said "good morning" as they passed, like Starbucks baristas fresh from customer-relations class. They laughed and joked with each other—and even with the few inmates who walked down those sunny corridors on their way to somewhere, lined up like schoolkids. Many of the outer doors in the unit were painted pink, giving off a bizarre air of Breast Cancer Awareness Month.
The chapel door itself, however, was green—and heavily locked.
Once it was opened, Samantha and I went down a passage into a small, undecorated wood-paneled room with some pews and a scratched wooden cube for an altar. Without flowers or music, guests or fancy clothes, all the ceremony could consist of was words. But then, words are all that any wedding ceremony really needs. City law requires a declaration of intent by the couple, and a pronouncement by the officiant. The rest—the pageantry, the decorations, the DJ—is negotiable. I knew the jail would not give us much time, but I wanted to address the fact that these two were apart, and probably would remain apart for a long time coming. So I wrote those details into my script.
When we were ready to get started, I stood behind the altar and told Samantha to sit in the front row. In that brief moment, I felt like I had as much authority as the guards. To make Tiquesha's entrance a bit more meaningful, I told Samantha that when she heard the chapel door slam, she should stand up.
After a few minutes, the main door to the passage slammed, and in came Tiquesha dressed in her inmate beige sweats, her hair in a topknot. There was no solemnity. The two women rushed to each other, grabbed hands, and stood in front of me, grinning madly. Then Tiquesha's captain entered; she wanted to be a part of the occasion.
"Whatever your circumstances, you will never be alone," I said. "Wherever each of you may be, your hearts will be together."
I quoted from the Book of Ruth ("Where you go, I will go…" ), they made their declarations ("I take you to be my wife…"), they exchanged rings (a chunky one for Tiquesha, a more delicate one for Samantha), and I pronounced them "wife and wife, spouses for life."
The whole thing took about three minutes. I read as slowly as I could—there wasn't going to be any kind of celebration afterward—but you can only string out 383 words for so long. After I pronounced them married, they fell into a bear hug and kissed long and hard. The three guards stood in silence, so I clapped—by myself. It felt less odd than you might think.
"Congratulations!" I added.
We signed the license. The captain was the witness, but declined to put her first name, only printing her first initial and last name. Inmates are not allowed to know officers by their first names, as they're a kind of equalizer in a place whose residents are very much not equals. Then it was time to go. We left the room together as one guard chanted the wedding march and another threw imaginary rice.
Outside, the group paused, and Tiquesha looked at Samantha, seeming to realize what an effort her new bride had made. Whether in acknowledgement of that, or because she just wanted to delay saying goodbye, she bent down and began to neatly fold up the bottom of her pant legs. One fold, two folds, then a third. But before she could start on the second leg, she was made to stand. Time was up. Married, she allowed herself to be led away, one pant leg folded, one hanging loose, with the resignation of a woman who knew her life was not her own.
Emma Gilbey Keller is a writer and a wedding officiant.
Tiquesha is awaiting trial at Rikers Island on a charge of second-degree attempted murder.