When Love is a Crime: the Criminalization of Relationships Inside Prisons


Prisons and jails have notorious reputations for the illicit relationships that they foster. Relationships between officers and inmates are often publicized to look like stories of lustful scandal. Other times, the criticism is directed at inmates who are in relationships with other inmates, or officers, while having a spouse, or partner outside of the facility. The problem here is that  public and private eyes often focus on the individuals involved that they often neglect a larger problem: many jails and prisons  overlook the natural tendency to companionship by implementing punitive measures for those found having relationships within prison walls.

In addition to not having freedom and being stripped of your possessions, you are expected to quell your need for intimacy. To assure this, regulating and monitoring occurs at every level. At the most basic level, inmates cannot touch or hug each other, go into each others cells, or exchange items. Now, these rules are always disregarded but often leave people in precarious situations since getting caught would result in a ticket or lock (confinement).

During my time inside, officers who were caught having a relationship with an inmate were usually walked off the job and were registered as sex-offenders, not because sexual relations between the inmates and them were not consensual, but because inmates have no right to consent to sex. Therefore, an officer who, knowing this, decides to get involved in a relationship with someone who cannot legally consent, is considered a sex-offender.  These consequences seem quite harsh considering the consensual nature of the relationship.

Reflecting on my years inside, I can recount several situations that inform my stance on this problem. Before I reference any of those stories, I want to make it clear that names have been changed and several stories have been merged to represent the story of a  single composite character. Even though two years have passed since my release, my heart still maintains a deep sense of loyalty to the women I grew up with and struggled with. Now, I relate to you the story of Ayala, a very close friend of mine.

Ayala was an intelligent and devout Orthodox Jewish woman. Her faith, however, naturally caused internal conflict  when she found herself developing strong feelings for another woman and slowly developing in a relationship with her.  She expressed living wthe burden of dealing feelings of guilt and turmoil daily. This was the first time she had  been with another female. Exacerbating her own guilt, criticism from other inmates about how she was a “fake Jew” became common. But, as she expressed to me,  she “couldn’t help it.” After 10 years of residing in in a place filled with darkness and grief, Ayala felt comfort and protection from Leo. She was Ayala’s best friend.

When the officers first learned of their relationship, the harassment began. They started harassing Leo and Ayala by writing them tickets for minor infractions frequently. Blemishing their disciplinary records, however, was minor compared to what happened next.  A few months into their relationship, Ayala’s cell was randomly searched, and she was “locked” and confined to a cell in a different housing unit for over a month. She had been charged with several counts of contraband possession. I knew it wasn’t true. The officers knew that it wasn’t true, but it was impossible to prove. Everyone knew that the search leading to her confinement was really a ploy by administration to separate Ayala from Leo. 

She was strategically moved from her housing unit, where she had lived with Leo, to a section of the prison that made it nearly impossible for them to see each other. At that particular time, the administration had decided to separate couples into different parts of the prison by implementing absolutely separate recreational spaces. This meant that individuals from different parts of the facility would no longer be able to attend the gym or yard together during their recreational hours outside of their housing units.

Anyone that was incarcerated with me at this time will remember this as the period of segregation between the ”uppers” and the “back buildings.”  The effort to keep couples apart resulted in individuals sneaking into their partners’ recreational areas or housing units to spend time with them. Women started finding more inventive ways to smuggle kites (letters) and food to their partners. Interestingly, the segregation  rapidly paved the way for a “snitching endemic” where women would cooperate with officers, revealing  the illicit activities occurring within the inmate population,  hoping that they would be moved to their partner’s unit. During that time, it was also rumored that girls were exchanging sexual favors with officers to be moved as well. The truth of that rumor, I don’t know. I wouldn’t be surprised if it were true considering that people were “snitching” on their closest friends and befriending officers to get themselves moved.

Despite the consensual nature of relationships between officers and inmates, officers are often registered as sex offenders in the aftermath of these relationships.

Thanks to the effort of the ILC (inmate liaison committee), the segregation ended soon after, but nevertheless Ayala was transferred to another facility. About a year later, I ran into Ayala again when I was transferred to her facility across the street. We didn’t get to talk much. However, I did learn that she had become romantically involved with an officer. Suspicions arose when inmates started informing officers. Eventually she was moved to another facility away from him. He didn’t get off too easy. After losing his job and being arrested, the officer was registered as a sex offender. 

I ask my readers to reserve their judgments on Ayala and other women who have experienced similar situations. This piece is not meant to encourage criticism of my peers for  the decisions they made. In fact, they are victims and this is an attempt to directly express criticism for the administration and those who did and continue to exploit  the human need for love and companionship for their own gains. How many of us wouldn’t make undesirable decisions to be reunited with our spouse or the person who we love? The nonsensical segregation practices are only some of the many methods that administration and officers used to force inmates to jeopardize their freedom. These practices force encourage inmates to “tell on” on other inmates and resort to now-forbidden ways of seeing their partner.

To be sure, the need for companionship needs to be addressed more realistically within prisons. Instead of blaming inmates and punishing officers with a lifelong shameful record, those who make these rules need to consider the crux of the problem: the human need for comfort through companionship. And by no means is my suggestion extraordinary. After all, the state recognizes the importance of the right to marry and have conjugal visits. The allowance of prison pen pal programs further expands the pool of potential companions for inmates. But the reality is that inmates spend the majority of their time with other inmates and officers, making attraction between them very likely. These are the people they eat, sleep, and work around.  Whether we like it or not, those inhabiting the facilities with inmates daily have access to seeing them at their most vulnerable moments.

Therefore, it makes sense that if DOC (department of corrections) wants to micromanage the emotions of inmates to better regulate their environment, then DOC needs to acknowledge that they need to increase inmates’ abilities to fulfill their need for companionship. Perhaps, that can materialize as more opportunities to get married and have more frequent conjugal visits. Procedural and legal barriers to  marriage can be reduced. With appropriate criteria, facilities may even increase the frequency of inmate’s contact with those outside.

These suggestions in no way overlook the reality that inmates are serving time for crimes that they committed. The quest is whether we think that depriving humans of their need for companionship and vilifying them for acting out on their emotions in a place of vulnerability to, perhaps, cope with the pains and solitude of imprisonment, will really rehabilitate our inmates and prepare them to have healthy lives and relationships upon reentry?