Questions about the wedding
Are you going to change your name?
Yes. I hear it is an onerous process. I’m going to change my middle name at the same time. My new name will be “Emma Love Arbogast”. I’ll be able to say, “Love is my middle name!”. 🙂
Are you going to wear a dress?
I’m still working on my outfit. It is not going to be a traditional wedding dress, for several reasons. Mostly, because I want to be comfortable and wear something that is “me”.
What do your rings look like?
They are plain black titanium bands. Mine has a diamond set into it and has the inscription WE ARE US. (His has to be completely plain, prison rules.)
Why are you getting married now and not waiting? How will you know what it is like to live together?
Waiting to me would mean that I wasn’t sure or wasn’t committed, and I am. Commitment isn’t about knowing everything the future holds, it’s about facing the future together, and standing by each other no matter what. There is a lot we don’t know. But that’s actually true for everyone–life is an endless series of unknown things you face when you get there. And what we do know is that we want to do it together–all of it. Life. And that’s what marriage means, so we’re getting married.
I thought you were a lesbian?
Apparently I’m bisexual.
Questions about prison
How often to you visit?
Every weekday, usually in the mornings (7:15 am to 10:15 am). Sometimes one the weekend, it depends. There is a points system determining how many visits you can get each month. Jabari has 34 points total. Each person at a visit counts as one point on weekdays and two points on weekends.
They call them “Extended Family Visits” now, but they don’t exist in Oregon, or in most states. We can hug and kiss at the beginning and end of each visit, and hold hands during the visits.
What is it like to live in prison?
Think about the worst mistake you ever made.
Now imagine your entire life was defined by that day, and it’s the only thing most people will ever know about you. Think about having no real way to make up for that mistake, and yet you will think of that day for the rest of your life. Imagine feeling shame that you can never really do anything about.
Now think about your bathroom. Take out the tub and put in a bed and a very small desk. Now think about living in it. For a decade.
Think about eating food labelled “not fit for human consumption”. Forget about your phone, or the internet, or Facebook. Think about not seeing a tree or a river, ever. Think about sleeping in a cell, with bars on the door, in a warehouse filled with people screaming violent, hateful things at each other. You can’t ever relax because you have to pay attention to everything that is going on with everyone to make sure you know what’s up and can keep yourself safe.
Think about it being against the rules to give the person next door a package of soup even if he’s hungry and you have extra. Think about it being winter and snow falling and it being against the rules to make a snowman.
Think about not having any real contribution to make in the world, because the only job you can get pays 50 cents an hour and you are completely replaceable in case you might get sent to solitary.
Think about not getting to celebrate any holiday or event with your family or friends. Think about them forgetting you exist because you are not a part of their daily lives anymore. Think about your kids growing up without you. Think about never hugging a single living soul for years.
Now imagine 99% of people believe you deserve to live this way, and anything they deem to be “too luxurious”, like cable TV (that you pay for), could be taken away.
And imagine that for the rest of your life, even after you get out, if you tell most people about this experience, they will be afraid of you and distance themselves from you. And in their eyes you will see that they judge you and wonder what you did to deserve it and if you plan to hurt them too. So you try to put it behind you and forget how you lost years and years of your life for no real purpose, and try to make a living with a permanent mark against you that you will have to tell every potential employer and landlord for the rest of your life.
Questions about Jabari
What did he do?
Robbery with some complications. He robbed other criminals (drug dealers), not citizens. You can ask him or me more about it in person if you want. Given his upbringing (neighborhood, race, family, socio-economic status, temperament), it was pretty likely he would have ended up either in prison, or dead, so we both feel lucky it was the former. In many ways prison saved his life (this does not mean that prison in general is a great idea, as his life path could have been affected positively in a multitude of better ways at many points along the way).
How long till he gets out?
His release date is Nov 14, 2020. He was incarcerated Mar 12, 2002, when he was 20. He’s 32, 10 months younger than me. His sentence is 19 years.
Why is his sentence so long?
Oregon has mandatory minimum sentences under Measure 11, passed in 1994. In addition, although he agreed to a plea bargain for 10 years, the judge ignored this at his sentencing.
Is there any chance he could get out early?
Not really. Measure 11 also eliminated parole and “good time” (early release for good behavior) for the crimes he was convicted of, so not really. The only way he could get out early is (a) if the law was changed or (b) applying for clemency from the governor. Clemency does happen but it is a really long shot.
Where is he from?
He grew up in Dallas, Texas. In the not-nice part. He was living in Eugene when he was arrested.
What kind of name is Jabari?
It’s Swahili. He is mixed-race (Black and Caucasian), but in the South, and in prison, that makes him black, even though he is pretty light skinned. He grew up in a mostly black neighborhood and identifies as black culturally.
Tell me something else about him.
He has 6 kids (four bio-kids, two step-kids). They are now ages 13 – 19. The oldest will be at the wedding.
He is an athlete and routinely wins weightlifting and cross-fit competitions. He also played basketball but recently retired due to knee injuries. He helps train younger guys (if they can hack the intensity of the workouts).
He helped start one of the only Restorative Justice groups inside a prison.
His favorite TV show is Walking Dead. He also likes watching weird food shows like “Bizarre Foods”. He can’t stand seafood of any kind.
He reads a lot. Social science, psychology, philosophy, spirituality, among other things.
He really likes ice cream. 🙂
How do you know he has changed?
I’ve spent hundreds of hours with him on the phone and in person. I’ve never once doubted his character or his commitment to nonviolence. Beyond that, he would rather be homeless and live under a bridge than go back to prison.
He has never had any issues with drugs or addictions. While there were many circumstances that made crime seem like a good option, ultimately it was his choice to engage in it and his choice to stop.
I will offer you some of his writing so you can get to know him through that medium.
He wrote this essay about his transformation and pursuit of redemption for a writing class: The Window.
These are excerpts from a letter in response to a friend of mine (who met him) asking what he wanted her to know about his experience.
I want you to know that prison is a short-term dehumanizing solution to a long-term human story created by trauma, dysfunction and economic suffering.
Personally, I want you to know me. My journey through abuse, poverty, shame and ultimately love.
I want you to know that prison hurts, that it doesn’t and can never rehabilitate. I want you to know that I’ve hurt people and no amount of my own pain can erase or heal that, yet I suffer not just because the justice system has caged me like a wild animal too scary to be seen by the light of day, but because I am cosmically connected to all living creatures and I am as much my victims as I am myself.
I want you to know how impactful it was that you, owing me nothing, have given me so much. To be seen. Something I’ve longed for so much of my life. You’ve given me this simply by acknowledging my humanity. Being willing to see past my flaws.
I’m not sure if what I want you to know can be told in a brief letter. Maybe it takes a lifetime of getting to know each other again. I guess I’ll leave you with this. I am a person. Not unlike you. Due to choice and circumstance my path has lead me here. I still laugh, dream, and hope for a better tomorrow. When it’s late at night and quiet settles in, I cry for the lost yesterdays. I, like the millions of other people incarcerated in America’s prisons, just want to be known. When we know each other it makes it harder to hurt one another and easier to seek forgiveness and answers.
… In closing please know that you matter. Your thoughts ideas and concerns. You can make a change. – JABARI.
Questions about our relationship
How did you meet?
I was volunteering teaching NVC in prison. He was a peer trainer (meaning he had been through the program for a year already and was helping as a TA).
We met January of 2013. I would go in once a week on Wednesdays for the two hour class. It turns out that we both had strong feelings for each other right away, but we didn’t know how the other person felt for a long time. We didn’t have very much time to talk before and after class (like, 10-15 minutes), plus there were rules about not being personally involved with inmates while being a volunteer, so we had to be careful how much we talked, and couldn’t communicate outside of class. I had to come to terms with the idea of being involved with an inmate and work through my fears and considerations. I also had a strong attachment to finishing the year with the class I was helping teach, and to become a visitor I would have to quit as a volunteer.
Also my on-again off-again parter of 9 years, Emily, moved back from Albuquerque in June, and then committed suicide two months later, so all of that was going on that year too. (The two of them met and really hit it off. She said, “I would probably have fallen in love with him too.”)
Consequently we didn’t really completely tell each other how we each felt until November. At that point I quit as a volunteer, but for various reasons too complex to go into here we weren’t allowed to visit for 6 months. But we could talk on the phone finally. We decided to get married in December, but we didn’t tell anyone for awhile (on account of not wanting to completely freak people out). I told the people closest to me over the next few months.
What do you guys plan to do when he gets out?
We want to build a residential treehouse and live in it, somewhere about 40 minutes from Portland (give or take), with enough land to run around on. We also want to travel around the country in a Eurovan or something of that nature and see what we see.
What do you love about him?
He listens. He understands me. And when he doesn’t, he tries. He is absolutely committed to our connection in a way I have never experienced before from any other human being.
I admire him. He has seen, and lives with, the worst of humanity, and still has an open heart. He has more self-control than anyone I’ve ever met, and that is because of where he has come from and what he has had to do to become who he is now.
We fit together. We want the same things, we want to experience and enjoy life in the same way.
We come from completely different worlds, and yet we understand each other in a way that transcends all of those differences.
My whole life I’ve felt different than everyone and like I didn’t fit anywhere. I’ve felt confused many times about why I am here–what my purpose is. At the same time, my whole life I’ve wished on every star and wishbone and dandelion and birthday candle for one thing: True Love. It’s the only thing I’ve ever really wanted. And that is what I have found. I would go to the ends of the Earth and walk through fire for the kind of love that I want. And I’ve finally found someone who feels the same way. We don’t just want the same things out of life, we want the same things out of love. And we want it with each other. This is more than a relationship to me; this is my destiny.
Every relationship has problems, every couple has disagreements, every person has rough edges. The difference is we work on every single problem until it is no longer a problem. Most people don’t have the stamina, or interest, or skills, to go that far to create authentic harmony and maintain the energy of love. But that is what we both enjoy and want.
I still feel different than everyone, but I feel like I belong here, with him. I know it is fashionable these days to not be too close to your partner, to be independent and self-sufficient. Maybe that works for some people. But I never wanted to be independent. I never wanted to be a self-actualized individual. I wanted to find the place I belong, the person I belong with. I don’t believe I really could be complete without this relationship, because I don’t think I’m wired to be alone. I think I’m wired to be one of two. Everything has changed for me in the last year. Who I am, who I feel myself to be…everything has been re-aligned to something that is all I ever wanted, but also something I never thought possible. Our hearts and souls are fused together. WE ARE US.
In some ways I feel even more different than before. I’m aware of this prison system, which most people are not, and it’s a doozy of a reality to be aware of. And I’m invested in this relationship to a degree that many wouldn’t understand. But I am happy. My world makes sense. My life makes sense. I am where I am supposed to be.
In some ways getting married is just skimming the surface of our commitment. When he gets out we will do our own ritual out in the wilderness under the stars. But marriage gives our relationship legitimacy in the eyes of certain people and institutions and it is the thing we can invite people to, to celebrate and acknowledge our relationship. It is something the whole world understands. I hope this gives you a glimpse of why this is important to us, and I hope that you can share in our joy to have found each other.