What Draws People to Marry Prison Inmates?

ByABC News via logo
June 28, 2005, 3:42 PM

Aug. 10, 2005 — -- Tim McDonald and Teresa Deion Smith Harris have never lived together or shared more physical affection than what McDonald describes as "an airport hug," but they recently celebrated their second wedding anniversary.

McDonald is a 50-year-old retired airline pilot. Harris, 34, is a convicted killer, serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole at the Tennessee Prison for Women in Nashville.

With a record 2.1 million people in U.S. jails and prisons, it's not surprising that thousands of American men and women have spouses or romantic partners in prison. What is surprising is that some people -- McDonald among them -- are entering relationships with convicts who are already behind bars -- and, in the case of McDonald's wife, may never be released.

Jennifer Hyatte is one of the many women who've been wooed and won over by inmates. In August 2004, she was fired from her job as a licensed nurse practitioner at Tennessee's Northwest Correctional Complex in Tiptonville for having an inappropriate relationship with inmate George Hyatte, then serving a 35-year sentence on several robbery and assault convictions.

Details of their courtship are unclear, but the couple has since married and both are now fugitives. Jennifer Hyatte helped her husband to freedom Tuesday after allegedly shooting and killing a corrections officer outside a Tennessee courthouse.

Stories of women entering romantic relationships with male prisoners are common, but McDonald is a member of a very lonely demographic.

In a recent posting on PrisonTalk.com, a Web site where nearly 50,000 members seek and share comfort and advice about their relationships with inmates, McDonald asked, "How many men marry women in prison? And more to my case, how many marry women they met after incarceration? I've not encountered any others so far."

Men serving time for some of the most notoriously heinous crimes apparently have enough sex appeal to turn death row into a sort of lovers' lane.

Kenneth Bianchi and cousin Angelo Buono, dubbed the Hillside Stranglers for the murders of 10 girls in the Los Angeles area in the late 1970s, both married while in prison.

Serial killers John Wayne Gacy and Ted Bundy both had committed relationships with women before they were put to death. "Night Stalker" Richard Ramirez, awaiting execution for a string of brutal murders in California in 1985, married a pen pal in 1996.

Erik and Lyle Menendez, who are serving life sentences for the 1989 murders of their parents, both married after being incarcerated. Erik Menendez recently celebrated his sixth wedding anniversary with a woman he began corresponding after his conviction. Lyle Menendez married pen pal Anna Eriksson in 1997. The couple split up after about a year, but he then married another correspondent in a prison ceremony in 2003.

Scott Peterson, awaiting death in the execution chamber of San Quentin State Prison for the murders of his wife and unborn son, is reportedly flooded with letters from admirers. Even Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh received marriage proposals before he was executed.

But there are few accounts of men taking brides who are serving time for violent crimes. Certainly, there's debate over the psychological and social factors that may explain why women appear more apt to fall in love with convicts, but underneath the discussion are some pretty straightforward numbers.

About one in every 138 Americans spent time in prison in 2004, with the number of female prisoners increasing by 2.9 percent over the previous year to 103,310, according to the latest data released by the Justice Department's Bureau of Justice Statistics. But it's an extraordinarily lopsided population. Men were 11 times more likely to be incarcerated than women.

Prison officials say inmates convicted of the most heinous crimes tend to attract the most attention from pen pals, and McDonald's relationship with Harris bears that out.

According to court documents, Harris flagged down 19-year-old Dennis Brooks Jr. on his way home from his night shift at a Subway fast food shop in September 1993 after a car she and two accomplices were riding in had broken down. The three overcame Brooks, beat him, shot him, stabbed him and mutilated his body. Harris admitted to pressing Brooks' excised heart to her lips and stabbing the victim's body once, but she otherwise denied a role in the mutilation.