Valentine’s Day is coming up, a day when we honor the special relationships we have with those we love. Even in prison, family and romantic relationships carry on--and sometimes even begin. This week, we’re honoring Valentine’s Day with stories members from our community shared with us about the efforts they’ve made to keep their love alive.
Finding love when you least expect it
Brian H. was single when he started serving 8 years in state prison, and that was fine by him. Managing a relationship would only add to the day-to-day stressors of being incarcerated, he thought.
But about 5 years into his sentence, he got an unexpected letter from a woman he was only casually acquainted with back home.
“She said she always thought about me and always wondered what was going on with me,” Brian says. “And then one day, she wind up looking me up.”
Soon Brian began exchanging several letters a week with his old acquaintance, whose name was Azheé. At the end of each letter, he would ask three questions to get to know her better--everything from the mundane (“What’s your shoe size?”) to the philosophical (“If you could go back in time to any age that you want... what would you change?”). After a couple of months, they started talking on the phone, while continuing to send letters back and forth.
"I just wanted somebody to talk to. At that time, that was it." But as they kept talking, their relationship blossomed. Azheé was “very smart, very outgoing,” but Brian found himself attracted to her not just for her personality, but for how much she cared about him.
“It was also about her worrying about my well being and really getting to know me too. And that's what really attracted me to her.”
He found that being forced to rely on letters and phone calls actually helped foster an intimate connection. But the limitations of prison also put strain on the relationship. "Not being able to be there physically for that person to help that person when they in need... it’s stressful.”
Still, he never wanted Azheé to visit him in prison. He thought it would just be too tough to have to part when the visit was over, and didn’t want to put her, or himself, through that pain.
The distance tested his faith in the relationship, as Brian worried whether someone else would fill the void left by his absence. But he tried not to focus on things out of his control and instead on the connection they had.
On their first Valentine’s Day together, Brian asked a friend in the prison to draw a portrait of Azheé. "She wrote me and told me when she saw the picture it made her cry,” Brian remembers. “She loved it.”
But as he got closer to his release, things sometimes got rocky. Opportunities for parole raised Azheé’s hopes that he would be coming home, but created a series of disappointments when he was stuck doing more time. "Sometimes we would get mad and hang up on each other, or she wouldn’t answer my call."
When he went up for parole the fourth time, Brian finally got to go home. Azheé was still there waiting for him when he was released the day before Christmas Eve 2019. Four and a half years after Brian got that first letter out of the blue, they remain a couple. Ultimately, the stress of pursuing a relationship while he was incarcerated was worth it. “She was by my side, and I love her a lot for it." Brian H. is a mentee in the Prison Society’s program mentoring program, which helps ease the transition back to society for men from Philadelphia.
Making a marriage work
Lakyra Stokes says being married to someone who is incarcerated is not “for the faint of heart.”
"It's like we’re both locked up,” Lakyra says. “My life is on hold just as much as his is."
Her husband Furuq was sent to prison in 2017, separating him from Lakyra and their three young children. Coping with their new normal as a couple and a family came with a steep learning curve.
“You gotta be prepared for all the curveballs that are gonna get thrown your way.”
There were prison lockdowns and transfers that left him out of touch without warning, even before these became commonplace during the COVID-19 pandemic. During one transfer, Lakyra lost contact with her husband for three weeks without knowing why. It didn’t help that they got into an argument when they last spoke.
“I mentally gave up. I was like, ‘I’m not doing this.’"
But she didn’t give up, in spite of challenges like the 15-minute phone calls with her husband that are always too short.
"I gotta rush through updates of what's going on, how the kids are progressing... and it's mentally draining."
Lakyra says that knowing their calls are recorded, per prison policy, also stifles intimate conversation.
"It’s like being at a restaurant, and you’re trying to have this romantic evening and the waiter is hovering over you."
Lakyra tried to visit her husband as much as possible before the pandemic put in-person visits on hold, catching rides every other month to the state prison in Waymart with the Prison Society’s bus service. On the bus, she met other wives visiting their husbands in the prison, and together they formed a carpooling group so they could make the 150-mile trip from Philadelphia more often. Calling themselves WOW (Women of Waymart), it became much more than a carpooling group. The women shared information about lockdowns that might cut them off from their loved ones, and became a network of emotional support.
“It was good to know that I’m not alone,” Lakyra says. Sharing experiences with the other women helped her realize that it was normal to feel like giving up on her marriage sometimes. What mattered was “whether or not it’s worth fighting for.”
“I wholeheartedly believe that my relationship is worth fighting for. My husband is worth sticking it out for.”