Relationships - Love Behind Bars
I met Kerry during a long stint in prison. I never expected that she’d become the love of my life.
BY THOMAS GANT
JAN 21, 2024
As I looked at the woman I was about to marry, I was filled with amazement and gratitude. We weren’t able to have the kind of wedding most couples dream about—no five-foot cake, no floral arrangements, no banquet-hall reception. But it didn’t matter. Her smile warmed up the normally cold and sterile visiting room of the prison I called home.
On the day of our wedding, I’d served over half of the 25-year sentence I’d received in 1998, back when I was just 22. Every dream I had to go back to school, get a real job, and forge a better life had been crushed. But I decided early on that true remorse meant not just being sorry but doing sorry by giving back. In prison, I worked as a hospice care provider, became a violence interruption course facilitator, earned a degree, and became a peer mentor. I did these things because I wanted to be a better person. The state of New York doesn’t grant meaningful earned credits for these programs, but they were important to me.
Along the way, I found Kerry.
I didn’t want to make her uncomfortable. I had no idea if she felt the same way. All I knew was that I needed to keep in touch. Kerry and I had occasionally written letters to each other in the past, and I had her mailing address from our program evaluations. But because of strict prison rules, I was not allowed to bring paper—or any personal items—to the next facility. I scrawled her address on the inside of my pant leg before I traveled to the next facility. I prayed the writing wouldn’t smear.
As soon as I got there, I asked the man in the cell next to me if he had paper and a stamp, and I sat down to write to her. I told her what had happened. I said if I had one parting wish, it would be to keep in touch. I hoped that even if she didn’t want a relationship, at least we could develop a friendship.
Time passed and I heard nothing. I began to wonder if she would write back, if I had overstepped. Maybe she had reported my correspondence to the prison superintendent. I assumed the worst, but hoped for the best.
Months later, a response came.
Kerry had waited until she brought her group of students to my old prison in the spring. She said the session went well but that she had missed my presence. I wrote her back immediately.
Soon, we began writing back and forth all the time. I looked forward to returning to my cell each day after work just to see if there was a letter waiting on my mattress. In one of her letters, she asked when the prison was “open” for visits. I told her.
The first time she visited was in 2015. She’d surprised me by coming in. Kerry lived about an hour away, so I knew it was a sacrifice for her to make the trip. On that first visit, she asked how she could call me. Calls cost about $3 for 20 minutes. Soon, she started coming up to see me regularly, and we talked on the phone every day. I wanted more time with her. We learned about each other’s values, beliefs, families, and dreams. This was unlike any friendship I’d experienced. I was falling in love.
The limitations on our contact forced us to be deliberate with every minute we had. With each visit, I tried to learn as much about her as possible. I was in prison, but I still had high standards for anyone I was going to date. I was intentional about the questions I asked. During our third visit, after I’d rifled off a series of questions, Kerry paused mid-sentence and said, “Wait, are you interviewing me?” She wasn’t wrong.
The restraints of our situation forced hard conversations. Things that would scare most people to talk about on a first or second date had to be discussed early on—I told her about the crime I committed; she told me about the failure of her first marriage. We talked about what it would take to have a successful relationship while I was incarcerated and our physical intimacy was severely restricted. This all meant I felt like I had known Kerry my whole life by the time we shared our first kiss. We said “I love you” just a few months in.
The challenges piled up. Kerry endured lengthy waits and harsh encounters with correction officers just to be able to visit me for a few hours. Saying goodbye after a visit was always the hardest. Often I couldn’t even give her a hug because visiting rules minimize physical contact. Years later, during COVID, we were forbidden to touch at all. The most contact I had in those days were with correction officers during daily pat-downs.
It sounds scary to marry someone you have never spent time alone with. But with Kerry, I just knew. We had become intimate on a level I had never experienced with anyone before, even without being able to share a physical relationship.
Kerry and I had talked about everything during our visits, so I knew she shared my desire to get married. But still, I was afraid that my proposal, which would come without a ring or a big wedding, would not be enough. Prison rules wouldn’t even let me get down on one knee. I promised her all those things one day as I held her hand tightly over the high-top table of the visiting room, fluorescent lights and a watchful officer looking over us. “That’s not what matters,” she told me. “You are.”
One month later, on our wedding day, she was sent back out to her car to change the plain white button-down shirt she was wearing. It was deemed “inappropriate.” When she came back in a long-sleeved blouse, we finally exchanged vows and said “I do” in a private visiting room.
New York is one of only a handful of states that allow conjugal visits, which are private visits with spouses or close family members of people who are incarcerated. But even after two years of marriage, Kerry and I had to wait to spend time alone together because my familial visiting privileges had been limited after my niece—who was excited to show off her toys during a visit years prior—had unveiled a plastic toy key. It could only fit into the slot of her ballerina jewelry box. Nevertheless, New York state troopers were called, and my sister was arrested. The accusations were unfounded—I was quickly re-granted visiting privileges—but when Kerry and I applied for the two of us to be able to have private visitations as husband and wife, we learned that the Department of Corrections had never updated my records to reflect the mistake the officers made. This clerical error forced us to wait years before we could spend time alone.
When we finally did get that private visit, it felt like the closest thing we would get to a honeymoon, even though it was two years after our wedding date and took place in a trailer on prison grounds. I was brought to the unit first. I immediately got to work sweeping, wiping down countertops, and even polishing the silverware. There were not many things I could control about the environment, but I wanted to make the space nice for her in any way I could.
When Kerry finally stepped through the door to our little trailer, we hugged a little longer and our kiss had more passion than ever before. At last, there were no other eyes to infringe upon our privacy. We put away the groceries she brought—including my favorite bake-at-home pizza—and folded our clothes into the dresser. As fleeting as those visits were, all I wanted was to make this strange space feel like a home.
* * *
Last year, at age 47, I finally walked out of the prison gates for good. Twenty-five years after I was sentenced to prison, 24 years after committing to turning my life around, 14 years after meeting the love of my life, and seven years after committing myself to her in marriage, I was free to love her in the way she deserved to be loved.
Kerry was a high school teacher who regularly brought students into the prison for a course she taught on criminal justice. I was the head facilitator of the program, which aimed to educate young people about the realities of the prison system and deter them from going down dangerous paths. For seven years, beginning in 2008, the two of us collaborated as colleagues. We developed a friendly relationship, but it was professional. Each year, I looked forward to seeing her and her students. It was one of the few bright spots I had. Her intelligence, her grace, and her ability to empathize with me—my past and all—made it clear how remarkable she was.
After one autumn visit in 2014, I wished Kerry goodbye, telling her I’d see her in the spring.
That wasn’t to be. In January, I learned that I was being transferred to another prison. I would never see her again. My heart sank, and I realized what I actually felt.
Our story is unusual, but not as rare as you might think. Every visiting day, I would see dozens of other couples sitting together, gazing into each other’s eyes, somehow finding ways to keep their love alive in the worst of circumstances. Our story reflects the tens of thousands of Americans who are married to someone who is incarcerated.
As I told my wife the stories of my friends in prison and the issues we were facing, the two of us started working together to act as a bridge between the inside and the outside. She would tell me about the coalitions working to advance the rights of incarcerated people, and I would tell her about the issues people were facing on the inside so that she could communicate them to legislators and advocates. We both joined Communities Not Cages, a group of advocates, impacted people, and attorneys working to pass crucial sentencing reforms. We continue especially to fight for the Earned Time Act, which would allow incarcerated people to earn time off their sentences for good behavior and participation in vocational and educational programs. Despite extensive evidence from other states that programs like these reduce recidivism and lower taxpayer costs, New York has few such opportunities. (Thankfully, the state legislature is considering changing that this year. If the Earned Time Act had passed while I was in prison, it would have allowed me to be released in time to care for my mother when she was battling cancer.)
Kerry and I recently celebrated our first anniversary together outside of a correctional facility. Every day we spend with each other feels like a gift, and even mundane activities tend to take on a magical quality. We have a wonderfully spoiled dog. We’ve built a home that has a touch of each of our styles and interests. We cook for each other and get to curl up together to watch our favorite TV shows. We raise our grandchildren. We do everything other couples do, but with an extra layer of gratitude and patience.
Kerry used to get frustrated with those who questioned whether we had a “real” marriage because we hadn’t lived together first. There were always inquiries she had to field: “Are you sure he is really the man you think he is?” “How do you know he won’t go back to the way he was before he went to prison?” We are proud to be dispelling those misguided questions every day.
That’s not to say we don’t have challenges. I lost my mom to cancer while still in prison. Kerry and I each had a child from previous relationships suffer life-threatening accidents. But having seven years of marriage under our belts in some of the most difficult conditions has prepared us. We knew that if we could make it through that, we could make it through anything. We found love in the coldest of places. We hope that for future couples like us, their pathway to a life together is a little bit easier.