Suzie Jennings was nervous when she met her husband for the first time. She sat and waited for him to appear, obsessively picking her nails and fixing her hair. This first date had the same air of tense anticipation as any other—except for the metal detectors and intimidating security guards. She was only allowed to hug her long-distance love twice: once at the beginning of the visit and once at the end. They could hold hands, but only from across the table.
Jennings, 33, met Steven, 44, through a prison pen pal website in 2013. He is serving a 43-year sentence for first degree assault and will not be released from jail until 2032. They have been married for four years, all while Jennings lives in American Fork, Utah, and Steven is housed in the Stafford Creek Corrections Center on the west coast of Washington.
After a year of mailing love letters back and forth, the couple decided to create a blog to document their relationship. When Jennings saw how meaningful it was for Steven to write and get feedback from the outside world, she was inspired to create Inmate Blogger, a platform for incarcerated men and women all over the country to publish their writing.
“Just having their voice heard has a big impact on them,” Jennings tells Broadly. She strives to make the blog a place of positivity amid the overwhelming negativity of prison life. The blog now has more than 280 contributors and receives more than 13,000 views each month.
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“It’s best for [inmates] to focus on something positive, because eventually they’re going to get out and they’re going to be our neighbors; our friends; the clerks at the grocery stores where we shop,” Jennings said. “This outlet is therapeutic, and a lot of the [men and women] who write are able to write things they wouldn’t normally talk about, so it helps with their rehabilitation.”
Inmates can submit posts via email with an app called JPay. The email service uses a pre-paid stamp system that costs 40 to 50 cents per message. However, only 35 states and the District of Columbia use JPay, leaving many inmates without email access. Jennings hopes to set up a PO box in the near future, which would enable submissions from any facility in the country.
Jennings tells inmates interested in submitting work to InmateBlogger to think of the site as their own journal. Posts include ruminations on beauty standards, observations of life and death in prison, poetry about Black Jesus, and political commentary on family separation and prison reform. Jennings hopes to give incarcerated men and women a way to communicate with those outside of prison in a meaningful way. “I see myself as a bridge between prison society and [external] society,” she said. When managing the blog becomes overwhelming, Jennings is inspired by uplifting messages and posts from her writers.
In a post titled, “Prisoners Need Love Too,” author Martin Lockett writes about the importance of making these connections. “Experiencing the euphoria of knowing someone in the outside world cares enough to take time out of their day to write, answer phone calls, and visit can be enough to propel someone in prison through a 10-year sentence with a positive outlook on life,” he wrote.
While managing InmateBlogger, Jennings also maintains the original blog about her marriage.
Using the blog to celebrate her relationship is important to Jennings, since few people understand the why she has chosen to commit to her husband while he is in prison. Women who choose to marry incarcerated men are harshly stigmatized. “Not many people have been shining a light on this type of marriage,” Jennings said. The hardships of prison life and the pain of separation put enough pressure on a relationship, but a 2014 study showed that the burden of social stigmas also contributes to the likelihood of marriages involving an incarcerated spouse to end in divorce.
Fortunately for the couple, Washington is one of only four states which still allow extended family visits. Every 30 days, Jennings is allowed to stay with Steven for 48 hours. They sleep in the same bed, watch Naked and Afraid, make quesadilla dinners, and listen to country music. Even washing dishes together becomes a sacred form of intimacy.
The Jennings’ relationship inspires Suzie to devote all of her time to InmateBlogger. As the blog continues to expand, she is collecting money for stamps through GoFundMe. Eventually she hopes to become a recognized nonprofit organization. “The Universe has perfect timing. I had been searching for a voice of my own,” Suzie wrote in a post. “Little did I know that I would find it through helping other peoples’ voices to be heard.”