“I’m never getting married again,” I told my lawyer as we walked out of the county courthouse. I was feeling free and at the end of a very hard journey. Life was going to get easier! Looking back, I couldn’t have been more wrong …
Six months later, I found myself sitting in a 12-step meeting and gawking at a good-looking man across the room. His name was Jeff, and he shared that he was going to prison. Nonetheless, we exchanged numbers and started talking.
He wasn’t interested in a relationship because he, too, had just gotten divorced, plus he was looking down the barrel at a long federal prison sentence. We spent the next 10 months becoming very good friends and eventually, a couple.
We never discussed the future because we were not sure where our relationship would go after he left. On January 14, 2015, in only the second courtroom I had ever been in, he was sentenced to 70 months. We were in shock.
He left the morning of January 28, with his dad and a good friend, to go to Beaumont Federal Prison Camp to self-surrender. It was the saddest day of my life because I had fallen in love with him. I immediately set out to research his charges and sentence to more fully understand his situation. I spent many hours studying sentencing laws, calculating the earliest he could be released.
I visited Jeff whenever I could, or every three weeks, whichever came first, for the first two years. It is a five-and-a-half hour drive from Dallas, so an overnight stay is required. After that, visits decreased to once a month because of the financial and time burdens.
In August of 2015, Jeff proposed to me to ensure I would stick around through the rest of his prison sentence [smiling wink]. We were married in the prison visitation room on October 27, 2016. Not exactly a girl’s dream, but he promised that we will renew our vows in a much prettier place!
Very few people outside of my family and close friends knew the truth about Jeff’s incarceration in the beginning. I was terrified of the bias and judgement I would receive. After a few years of lying about his situation, I found myself in my own prison that I had created due to the fear of backlash from a society not well-educated on the incarcerated. Eventually, though, I physically and spiritually grew tired of it all and started speaking the truth about our life. With time and encouragement (and the help of FAMM), I have grown much more comfortable and confident about publicly speaking about our situation. The truth has truly set us free in many ways, but not in others …
With Jeff’s halfway house date in the foreseeable future, I bought a used car for him to drive to and from work. I called my insurance company to add the car to my policy and the lady mentioned that my husband was not listed as a driver on any of my cars. Having had a mostly good reaction from people in regards to Jeff’s situation, I told her his story. I didn’t think any more about it until two weeks later when I received a letter from the insurance company.
I called the number on the letter and spoke to an underwriter. I tried to explain that Jeff was not easily reached, but I could try and answer any questions, being his wife. She said, “No, you are a third party.” She went on to explain that they were not going to renew my auto and home insurance policies because they do not insure “felons in the household.” I tried to explain that he was doing his time and was a first-time, nonviolent drug offender, and it made no matter. My only options were to find other insurance or divorce my husband.
I was in utter shock! The fact that I had been a member of this insurance company for over 20 years, never missed a payment, had a near spotless claim and driving history made no difference because my husband was a Felon, with a capital F. They have an unwritten company guideline in regards to “moral turpitude.”
We have since found new insurance that does not have this kind of clause, but the mark has been left. My husband and I will carry this burden and face this discrimination for the rest of our lives, outside of the prison walls.
As we slowly get closer to his final release date of Feb. 26, 2019, from the BOP, the frustrations do not end. From struggling to get a halfway house release date from the regional office to being considered a no-show at the halfway house because they were expecting him a month earlier, we uncover more brokenness and miscommunication in a system that struggles to stay in one piece.
The barriers to reentry set many up to fail, to just be recycled back into a system that only speaks to reducing recidivism, while doing nothing to actually achieving it. Societal views on felons must change.
The past few years have taught me the value of speaking up, not just for me, but for the others who have no voice or do not yet have the courage. The only way opinions can change is through awareness and education. Nothing changes if nothing changes. Therefore, Jeff and I advocate, and will continue to tell our story to change hearts and mind, if just one person at a time.
By Ainsley Woods