I met and married an inmate. Since most people I meet don’t know what this is like, I wrote this FAQ to help people understand how and why this all came to be.
We first met in January of 2013, and we were married Oct 28, 2014 at Oregon State Penitentiary. We are very happy and hope you are happy for us. 🙂
About Our Relationship
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, and went through the proper channels to be approved for visitation. For various reasons, we were encouraged to not apply for visits until 6 months had passed. 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. I saw him again at the beginning of June, and I moved to Salem a few weeks later so we could visit more often.
Jabari wants to experience freedom, travel, and be in nature. We will probably stay in the Portland area, and get enough land to run around on. And maybe build a treehouse. We might travel around the country in a Eurovan or something of that nature and see what we see. Apparently international travel in some areas can be difficult with a felony conviction, but we will go where we can.
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 that felt like an authentic, driving desire. I kept it pretty close to my heart though because it felt so vulnerable.
I’ve found what I was looking for. 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. Love is not about perfection or never having conflict, it’s about working on every single problem until it is no longer a problem. We put a lot of energy and work into our relationship, because we want authentic harmony and to maintain the energy of love. That is what we both enjoy and want.
There is a feeling of belonging that I’ve never experience before. I think maybe it’s fashionable these days to not be too close to your partner, to be independent and self-sufficient. Maybe that is what some people want, but it never appealed to me. I’ve felt alone most of my life in one way or another, and I have worked a lot on being a “self-actualized individual”. It’s not really enough. I was still looking to find the place I belong and the person I belong with. So I don’t know if I really could be complete without this relationship, because I don’t know that I’m wired to be alone.
A lot 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 what I always wanted, but also something I never thought I would find. Our hearts and souls are woven together to make something greater than we could be alone. 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.
And in turn, I think this has made another healing journey begin within myself. Within the safety and love of our connection, I can feel parts of myself unfolding that were always too vulnerable and guarded to come to the surface. Love provides nourishment and shelter that invites the tender pieces of our soul to find their way back home.
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.
No. Well, sometimes. But I have had a lot of time to think of every possible issue having to do with crime and criminals and inmates and prison. I’ve had long hard soul-searching conversations with myself, and long hard conversations with him about all of these topics.
It’s not that I haven’t thought about possible risks. It’s that I’ve replaced vague fears and assumptions with reality and a sober assessment of the actual risk involved. And I’ve also learned that on the whole, people who have no actual experience with prison have no idea what it is like (and I know that because that was me 2 years ago). The best way to deal with vague terror is to ground it in reality. And the reality that I’ve found is that the causes and conditions for crime are complex, often have a huge economic component, and that our way of addressing the situation is ineffective if not immoral. The people in prison are paying for this with their lives. It’s easy to let your fear override any interest in finding out what is actually true. I think that’s the biggest factor in why we still have prisons and really long sentences even though nobody who has actually studied it thinks it works at all.
I get that maybe you are still afraid for me. Here is my request:
- Meet Jabari or have some connection with him before projecting your fears based on news stories, statistics, and fictional characters.
- Remember that my primary need right now is celebration and acknowledgement of a really huge thing in my life: meeting someone I’m deeply in love with and am committing to spend my life with. So please realize your fears are about your own needs, not mine, and that I have a limited capacity to be with you around those needs right now because the emotional toll of my life partner being in prison is really high for me. I really just need people to be supportive.
I also want you to think long and hard about how much of your fear is the result of racism, pure and simple. We have a nation where few middle-class white Americans can name anyone they know personally who has been in prison. Very few black Americans of any class couldn’t name someone. (source) The only reason this is so shocking is that you are middle-class and white and I’m middle-class and white, and I’m doing something middle-class white people just don’t do. So many people have said to me, “Well it’s such an unusual thing that you’re doing.” And I can see the shock on their faces. But really, it’s not. People in prison get married all the time. It’s only unusual because of my class. And in America, you generally don’t know that many people who aren’t just like you, demographically speaking. And I get it, I was the same way. It’s why I started volunteering in prison in the first place. I felt the bubble I lived in, only it had become claustrophobic instead of comforting. I needed to find reality, and I did. People in prison are real people, they aren’t scary monsters, the system we have is completely unfair, and we have to stop ignoring it just because we can.
His release date is Nov 14, 2020. He was incarcerated Mar 12, 2002, when he was 20. He’s 32, a year younger than me. His sentence is 19 years.
Oregon has mandatory minimum sentences under Measure 11, passed in 1994. In addition, although he was under the impression he had agreed to a plea bargain of 10 years, the judge ignored this at his sentencing and since he didn’t have any proof of the conversation, there was nothing he could do about it.
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.
He grew up in Dallas, Texas. In the not-nice part. He was living in Eugene when he was arrested.
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.
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. Prison may have saved his life, while at the same time taking away half of it.
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.
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 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.
About The Wedding
Yes, I am in that process. I’m working on changing my middle name too. My new name will be “Emma Love Arbogast”. I’ll be able to say, “Love is my middle name!”.
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.)
Sorry, I know the pic is a little out of focus, but you get the idea!
We got them from Absolute Titanium.
It was not a traditional wedding dress, for several reasons. Mostly, because I want to be comfortable and wear something that is “me”. I got this tunic a long time ago when I was in college, but I never wore it for anything because it never seemed to be the right thing to wear. But I always liked it and kept it, and it turned out to be perfect for the wedding.
I wore purple pants and a fringe belt under the tunic. This picture of me with my dad and my aunt in the prison waiting room shows a bit more of the outfit.
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 got married.
Apparently I’m bisexual.
Every weekday, usually in the mornings (7:15 am to 10:15 am). Sometimes on 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.
Nope. 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.
You can write to Jabari at:
Jabari Arbogast, #14313250
Oregon State Penitentiary
2605 State St.
Salem OR 97310
You can only send paper letters or cards or photos, no crayon or glue or glitter. You can send pencil or pen drawings, colored pencil is fine. You can send books or magazines directly from the publisher or a bookstore (i.e. from Amazon.com, etc). You can’t send any other kind of package. More info can be found at the DOC site about what you can and can’t send.
You can also “email” him through accesscorrections.com, and send pictures. It’s about 30 cents for each message. He doesn’t have the regular internet, so don’t bother sending links. 🙂
If you want to send a physical gift to Jabari, your best bet is to (a) draw a picture and mail it to him, or (b) pick your favorite book and send him a copy directly from Amazon.com. I’ve also created a book wishlist for him on Amazon. (If it’s empty, let me know and I’ll add some more.)
Anything you can do to make him feel like he has a community outside of the prison walls is the biggest difference you will ever make in his life. It’s easy to support someone when they’re not in prison anymore and you can interact with them normally. It’s much harder to support them when they are still in prison and it requires more effort to remember to do and jump through the hoops to write and visit. That’s why it matters so much.
Prison punishes entire families, destroys communities, is racist and classist, and does nothing to address the economic and social challenges that are factors in nearly all crimes. Please join the national conversation about prison reform, or on a personal level, reject the idea that prisoners like Jabari deserve to be isolated and ostracized, and commit to creating and maintaining a connection with him.
Yes, if you are friend or family and want to meet Jabari, please let me know. There is a process to get on his visiting list, which takes about 2 weeks. I will need to get some info from you. Once you are on Jabari’s visiting list, you are welcome to join me any other weekday for a visit in the morning or afternoon. If all you can do is a weekend, be aware that weekends cost double points, so please let us know a few weeks ahead so we can be sure to have enough points.
This is to help familiarize you with the rules and process of going into OSP. Please let me know if you have any questions!
When to arrive
- Morning visits start at 7:15 am and go to 10:15 am. I usually arrive around 7:10.
- Afternoon visits start at 12:30 and go to 3:45. I usually arrive at 12 to get on the list (it’s more crowded in the afternoons).
- On weekends, I always go in the morning because the afternoons are super crowded.
Where it is
Oregon State Penitentiary, 2605 State St, Salem OR 97301
Google Maps will get you close, here is a more explicit map of where to park:
What NOT to wear
- No blue of any shade (because the inmates wear blue). Especially no blue jeans. Dark purple can look too blue. Teal is generally OK if it’s on the green side.
- No underwire bras (because they set off the metal detector). You must wear a sports bra or other non-underwire bra. You do have to wear a bra, it is in the rules.
- Nothing too tight, especially not tight yoga-type pants.
- Nothing sheer or see through.
- Nothing with a low-cut front – shirts should be a max of 2″ below the collarbone.
- No shorts or skirts shorter than 2″ above the knee.
- No camouflage.
- No hats, scarves, shawls, or anything else you could leave behind. If you wear a jacket you will have to keep it on the whole time–you cannot remove any articles of clothing while you are inside.
- No sunglasses (prescription glasses are OK).
These items you CAN wear
- Sandals, including flip-flops.
- Tank tops if the straps are 1″ thick or more.
- Capris, or skirts that are no shorter than 2″ above the knee.
- Small bits of metal on clothing and in jewelry are usually OK, but if you are worried about the metal detector don’t wear it or be prepared to remove it and put it back on (i.e. a belt buckle).
What to bring
- Your ID (no exceptions, you absolutely must bring this!)
- A backup set of clothes if you are at all worried about your outfit.
- If you drove, bring a door key without a beeper, or, you can leave your keys in my car or in a locker. Lockers are 25 cents.
- For the vending machines – quarters and dollar coins. There are change machines in the lobby. No paper money is allowed in the visiting room. Coins must be in a clear plastic bag. (I always have a few dollars with me if you get hungry.)
- Up to 5 photographs to share. (no nudity, they will be inspected).
- You cannot bring anything else at all into the visiting room. There are a few more items allowed if you have an infant, and there are a few exceptions for medical reasons. If either of these cases apply to you, email me to discuss it. Do not assume you can bring in any medical items–let me check for you.
What to expect
You don’t have to remember any of this, it’s just FYI.
- When we get there, we sign in at the desk. You sign your name on the check in list, and then they look at your ID, confirm you are on the visiting list, and stamp your hand with invisible ink.
- We wait until they start taking people in. They will call Jabari’s last name, “Arbogast”, and then we go through the metal detector. Place your shoes and any items you are taking in on the conveyer belt.
- We wait on the ramp until 10 or more people are lined up. Staff come and go, but we wait until the staff assigned to take the visitors in comes down the ramp.
- They will shine a flashlight on our hand to make sure we have the stamp, and then we’ll go into the “control room”. The gate shuts behind us, and another one opens in front of us. We go through and line up on the right, by the door to the visiting room. The guard opens the door and lets us in.
- Jabari may or may not already be inside. Usually he’s not in the morning, but he is in the afternoon. It’s just timing, it takes about 20 minutes from when they pop his cell door to get to visiting.
- So we find him, or pick a seat and wait for him to get there.
- Depending on the weather and the whim of the officers that day, we can sometimes sit outside.
- When the visit is over, we say goodbye, the inmates leave, and we line up back at the door. They take 10 people at a time back to the lobby. They check your hand stamp again when you leave.
- You can’t share food with an inmate and they can’t approach the vending machines.
- Inmates sit in the gray chairs, we sit in the red ones.
Don’t worry too much about these rules or procedures–I’ll be there to lead the way and remind you of anything you need to know.
In general it’s pretty laid back. I’ve only seen visitors have issues with the guards once or twice, usually over what they are wearing and being told they can’t go in. I’ve never seen any inmate or visitor have any issue with the staff while we are in the visiting room, or have any issue with each other. Everyone is on their best behavior because they are grateful to have visits. Many people who come to visit are regulars and know the staff and joke with them.
If you have any questions or concerns please ask! I want you to be comfortable.
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.
Below are links to resources where you can read about prison reform, privilege, and the intersections of race, class, poverty, and prison in America.
- my favorite article: Why Scandinavian Prisons Are Superior (And why Americans are so terrified of “criminals” that we have become prison-crazed. Hint: it has a lot to do with race in our country’s history.)
- Harvard Magazine: The Prison Problem
- Policy Mic: Prison Reform 101
- Bastoy: the Norwegian prison that works
- Families Against Mandatory Minimums
- In Oregon: Partnership for Safety and Justice.
- The Sentencing Project