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What Romance in Prison Actually Looks Like

We rarely think of prison relationships outside of common clichés. Here, Amanda Knox shares what it was really like to be part of a prison couple.

by Amanda Knox
Feb 15 2017, 4:13pm

When Leny* first arrived at Capanne prison, a women's facility in Perugia, central Italy, she was sulky and withdrawn. She paced the yard alone, head bowed and shoulders hunched. This was not unusual for a transfer. Each prison is its own delicate ecosystem. Being uprooted and replanted, often without warning, is a frightening experience. I noticed her immediately: petite, with a paunchy belly and short, dark hair. I made Leny for the kind of prisoner who'd only lash out if cornered—so not a threat to me.

Between 2007 and 2011, I was imprisoned for a murder I didn't commit. By the time Leny entered the picture, I had already served three of those years. I didn't talk to her. I didn't talk to most people. Generally, I kept to myself.

I was lucky. Thanks to the support of my friends and family, I didn't need relationships in prison as much as other inmates did. Factors that contribute to social isolation―poverty, mental illness, a history of neglect and abuse―are often all tied together, and are disproportionately suffered by people who enter the prison system. Fifty percent of all inmates have a mental illness, compared to 11 percent of the general population—and social isolation can exacerbate underlying mental health issues. Meanwhile, women entering prison are more likely than men to have suffered abuse. And what familial ties inmates have are often strained and weakened by incarceration.

In Capanne, most of the inmates belonged to established social groups, largely drawn down racial lines, mainly Italian, Nigerian, and Roma. As an American, I didn't belong, but I floated amidst them and observed how they were structured. They were hierarchical, like extended families. Nigerians called each other "mama" or "daughter," while Roma called each other "cousin." And within these families, it was common for two inmates to form an intimate partnership.

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