What to Never Ask a Prison Wife
People may think I'm distant, or unfriendly. Or maybe they don't care either way that my husband is incarcerated. But it's just not information they have a right to.
Illustration by Cornelia Li
This article was published in collaboration with the Marshall Project.
Our visits are everything to us. They're our romantic getaways, our talks over dinner, our arguments, our coffee in the morning, our sunset dates.
I have to plan our visits months in advance: packing prison-approved clothing, getting the right combination of coins for the visiting-room vending machines, double-checking my hotel reservations and safety-checking my car for a nearly 1,000-mile trip from Kansas to Michigan.
He gets transferred pretty often, so I stay in a lot of different hotels, but the lobby attendants always ask the same questions:
"Where are you from?"
"Oh, wow, do you have family nearby?"
I think fast and decide just how honest I want to be. Will people be respectful if I tell them that my husband is incarcerated?
In some cases, I immediately decide to stay guarded. I answer with, "No, I'm just visiting for a little bit," perhaps with a bite to my tone to discourage further conversation.
Other people seem kind and genuine in their desire to get to know their latest—and, often in these small prison towns, only—guest. To them, I'll answer confidently, "Well, kind of. My husband is in such and such facility, and I'm here to spend a few days with him."
I always stay in control of the story. My marriage is my story, and I only talk about it for a good reason. It is not for shock value.
My husband and I met more than 25 years ago in the extended Chicago suburbs of northwest Indiana. I dated him just after graduating high school. I was white, from a middle-class neighborhood; he was black, hadn't graduated, and lived in a part of town he told me I shouldn't hang out in without him.
That summer, we went to the amusement park. We walked on the beach. We shopped at the mall where I applied for my first credit card to buy his ring when I first proposed. One night, we went to Chicago and took the elevator to the observation deck of the Sears Tower. There was a long kiss in the elevator and a view unobstructed by daytime tourists.
Summer ended, and, heartbroken at his initial refusal to marry me, I moved four states away for college. Over time, we each moved around quite a bit. He married and had a family. Eventually, I did, too.
Decades passed, and after we both got divorced, I got an unexpected message from his sister. She said: "He wanted me to get in contact with you and tell you how you can reach him."
It would be the first time I ever went to a prison.
I have many identities: I am a (single) mother, first and foremost. I am a master 's student. I am a full-time employee during the day. And I am a prison wife.
My husband and I were married last year, close to three years after being reunited through his sister. The night before our wedding, my mother and son and I had the "rehearsal dinner" at a Burger King near the prison. It was quite a feat to get my mom there. She was not a fan of our relationship in the beginning, but is our loudest cheerleader now.
We married before visiting hours, when no one else was in the visiting room. I wore an off-white dress and sparkly sandals and didn't care at all that his tux was his best prison blues, a special new set he got in time for the occasion. The ceremony lasted 30 minutes start to finish, and we were able to kiss a little more than usual.
My relationship is still questioned by strangers, even at the correctional facilities where my husband lives. At one, I approached the desk to check-in for a visit, and the CO said:
"Inmate number and your ID."
I followed the directions.
"Oh, Kansas. Why would you get involved... all the way from Kansas? Did you meet him on one of those websites?"
Before this, I never really gave prison wives much consideration. It took me some time to even identify as one. I didn't feel like I fit the stereotype, so how could that be who I was?
Even now, only a small group of people know that my husband is in prison: a few professors in my program of study, a couple of work colleagues, a wonderful bunch of close friends, and a handful of social media acquaintances. To most others who read my posts online or know about my volunteer work with advocacy organizations, it seems like I'm just a hardcore advocate of prison reform, which is true and has been the case since my undergraduate years. I often have conversations with people unaware of my relationship who try to tell me what inmates are like.
Most of my co-workers still don't know.
"How was your long weekend?" they say. "Did you do anything fun?"
The truthful answer would be, "Yes, I spent five days with my husband in a prison visiting room, and it was the best time!"
But instead I say, "No, not really. Just errands and stuff."
People may think I'm distant, or unfriendly, since I share so little. They might not care either way that my husband is incarcerated. But it's just not information they have a right to.
Once I told a co-worker who was more than just a work acquaintance. He was getting married, and I envied his ability to go on dates. As he shared plans of his engagement, he asked questions about my own husband.
"He's good," I said one day at lunch. "Getting settled—he moved recently."
"Oh yeah? Where did he move? Are you going to move there with him?"
"Well, here's the thing. He's in prison and just got moved to a new facility." I smiled and looked away, to give him a minute to absorb what I'd said.
My co-worker was always a respectful guy, but for a second, he froze and panicked. I'm sure all of the usual questions about my husband's crime flipped through his head.
"Oh, OK, so … When are you going to see him next?"
I was relieved and grateful for that. In the couple of years we've worked together since, I don't recall him ever asking me what crime my husband committed.
In case you're ever caught off guard by a friend who comes out of the prison-relationship closet, here's some advice: The first question you might want to ask, but probably shouldn't is, "What about having sex, don't you miss that?"
But the worst thing you can ask right off the bat is: "What did he do?"
Jumping right to that question feels dehumanizing because it reduces the person in prison to nothing more than whatever their charge might be. Yes, these are people who have been convicted of a crime, but they are still people. Even the "bad people" are someone's mother, father, child, or friend.
What matters most is elevating the level of respect for people like me and for our families. I would like a little bit of empathy. I've never been happier in my life, but I still have days when I struggle.
Don't we all?
Heather Moore is a proud mother and wife from Kansas.