Every year, an estimated 2 million couples in the US vow to stick together “for better or for worse.”
But what happens when the “worse” part of marriage unexpectedly includes one person serving a lengthy jail sentence?
“It’s kind of like your spouse died,” says Laure Clemons, who began a support group for relatives of prisoners after her husband was sentenced to six years following a deadly drunk driving accident. “I can remember how lonely it felt.”
Suddenly, the usual relationship hurdles are stacked up against forced separation, monitored phone calls and rare physical contact. And that’s not to mention the immense stigma that comes with being involved with someone who’s been convicted of a crime.
“To deal with that you need to make a choice,” chaplain Matt Peterson, who’s advised prisoners on marriage, explained to CNN’s Lisa Ling. “It’s loving someone through the good times and bad.”
But with over 800,000 divorces and annulments happening in the US each year, how realistic is it for a relationship to overcome the weight of incarceration?
Meet three couples who’ve had to face that question and put their promises to the test.
Keeping faith alive
Jennifer McCook pulled a large piece of paper from her office drawer and sketched out the image of a Christmas tree.
Because that’s “what you do after Thanksgiving, right?” Jennifer says. “You put up a Christmas tree.”
It’s a simple arts and crafts project, but one that can make a huge difference for her husband, Brian. He’s in prison.
When Jennifer met Brian, he was sober and full of life. He was secure, a man of faith, and without any complicated layers. They did everything together: shopping trips to Macy’s, golfing, grabbing groceries from the store. He loved to fish while Jennifer read next to him, and would make the bed every morning — taking on the chore Jennifer avoids at all costs.
These days, Jennifer looks past what she sees in front of her — Brian, in a jumpsuit, locked up — to that Brian she remembers. They’ve just begun a rocky journey.
For the next three and half years, Brian will live at the Minnesota Correctional Facility for something he’s battled his entire adult life: addiction.
At a sports game on July 4, Brian was hit with a baseball and rushed to the hospital. He was put on painkillers, a trigger of his past. Brian turned to alcohol almost immediately.
The next week, when the McCooks went on a family trip, Brian was drunk and belligerent. Very quickly, he was charged with being drunk and disorderly and making terroristic threats. He was ultimately arrested for these violations against a 2014 DWI probation.
Brian has lost so much since his arrest over the summer — freedom, work, friends — but he won’t lose his wife. The Maple Grove, Minnesota, realtor and mom of two believes God has a plan. “We are finding a lot of clarity in our lives by looking to our faith,” Jennifer says. They are determined to have a stronger outcome.
Brian is currently a half-hour drive from Jennifer, and she’s able to see him two to four times a week. During their visits, they sit across from each other as if they were in an airport waiting room. Lately, Jennifer finds herself wearing Brian’s deodorant. “I miss his smell,” she explains tearfully.
Like many women who lose their partner to the prison system, Jennifer has to make do without her husband’s paycheck. Maintaining work is a recurring concern. “It’s difficult for people to trust someone with hundreds of thousands of dollars of an investment,” Jennifer says. “My biggest fear is the impact it might have on my business now that I am married to a felon.”
With a little help from her friends, family, and faith, Jennifer plans to persevere. “I have what a lot of women want in a marriage,” Jennifer says. “I do not have a sad life.”
For better or worse
It was the 1980s, and Ann Edenfield Sweet had what many people dreamed of. She was working as a flight attendant, happily married to an airline captain, and the mom of four young boys.
In 1986, that relatively easy life changed forever. Ann’s then-husband was arrested for conspiracy to import drugs. One year later, he began his sentence in New Mexico, four and a half hours away from Ann and the children in Albuquerque.
Gone were the days when Ann’s husband was around to take the boys to soccer and tennis, or on fun family trips. Ann was now the single mother with four boys at church on Sundays. A double income household shrunk to one. And a successful, seemingly super-mom became unemployed and broke, tasked with raising her boys — all under the age of 7 — alone.
“Suddenly, we were the lepers,” Ann remembers. “No one wanted to go see us. The boys couldn’t play with the kids next door.”
Ann went into survival mode almost immediately; she says she was blindsided by her husband’s arrest, in which all of their assets were seized and frozen. Everything remained uncertain, but one thing Ann knew for sure: she was sticking by her husband under a single vow. “I married for better or for worse,” she says.
Every six weeks, she’d put five meals in paper bags and take the boys to visit their dad. It was a costly, lengthy road trip, and not one made for young children. They’d sit in chairs across from their father during the five-hour visiting windows without being able to touch him or take in a hug.
While her husband had structure in jail, Ann felt she had nothing over the years — no recipe or rules to guide her through this mess. Eighteen lawsuits had piled up from his incarceration, but the idea of divorce was only discussed briefly under the context that separating Ann from her husband’s case would financially benefit the family.
Her husband’s imprisonment also forced Ann to stop working. She was desperate for money and was no longer considered an appealing candidate for hire. “I became a master at garage sales and thrift stores,” Ann says. With what little she had, Ann would buy auctioned items, turn around and sell them for more.
While she had been told by a prison chaplain that most marriages under these circumstances don’t make it, that wasn’t going to be her outcome, she thought.”I always felt we had a good marriage. He was a good dad, (and) I am a woman of faith,” Ann says. “I believed that you could get through things.”
As the years passed by, Ann and the children prepared for her husband’s release. “Every day he is behind bars is a day of your life as well,” Ann says.
It wasn’t until her husband came home six years later that Ann realized how complicated their situation really was. She’d become the youth director at her church while playing both roles as mom and dad, caregiver, and breadwinner. The kids had grown into their own people.
Meanwhile, her spouse’s self-esteem as a husband and father had diminished, and employment seemed a long-lost dream.
Four years later, after many attempts to salvage their 28-year marriage, Ann and her husband divorced. “I can’t imagine we wouldn’t still be married, but incarceration is so dramatic,” Ann says. “It changed him and it changed me.”
All in the name of love
When Vicki Juarez first met her partner, David Morales, 12 years ago, she quickly noticed two things: His bashfulness, and his tattoos.
Vicki was the store manager of a Dollar General in Lubbock, Texas, and David was the truck operator helping her out that day with a big shipment of inventory. Vicki was recently divorced and wasn’t looking for anything romantic, but David was different from other men she’d met.
David “seemed kind of shy,” Vicki remembers. “I made sure he knew I wasn’t afraid of him.” After spending an entire day unloading inventory and getting to know each other, Vicki gave David her number.
David took Vicki out for a date. He was kind, respectful, and attentive — traits many people value in a partner. In short time, the two were practically inseparable.
Vicki knew that David had been in and out of the prison system a couple of times prior to meeting her, and eventually the cobwebs from his rough past surfaced again as he struggled with alcohol addiction. It was his honesty that gave Vicki a sense of comfort during these trying times. “He sat down and told me everything, so I never felt like there were any secrets,” she says.
But David’s drinking became more frequent. After receiving two DWIs, an attorney gave David a sobering reality check. “He told him, ‘If you get one more, there’s nothing I can do for you,'” Vicki recalls.
That wasn’t enough. In August 2010, David was sentenced to 10 years behind bars after receiving a third DWI. Now, Vicki is just past the midway point of waiting for David’s release, having made the decision to stay six years ago.
Since making her choice, family, friends, and even David’s children are constantly after one simple answer. Why?
“I’m not a desperate woman,” Vicki rebuts. “I don’t stay with him because I am desperate. I stay with him because I chose him to be my life partner.” David has a lot more work to do in Vicki’s eyes, but to her, he’s still well worth the wait.
“I think people think that we are stupid,” Vicki says. “We have to be stronger than most people.”
With four years to go, Vicki waits patiently for the day she can touch David again. He lives in segregation, so Vicki is unable to call him. She misses his voice deeply.
They’ve made their situation work with letters and, when she’s able to afford it, visits to David’s prison in Wichita Falls, 225 miles away. He’s always behind glass.
“David is not an animal — he is a man. He is sensitive, he is caring, he loves people,” Vicki says. This man may someday become her husband, a discussion the two lovers have already had. “He has made some bad choices in his life that he is paying for. But in spite of the bad things, he’s done more good.”
This is why she stays.