What Draws People to Marry Prison Inmates?


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.

Most often, prison officials say, inmates become seriously involved with someone they knew before their incarceration or with someone who regularly visits the prison. There are, however, a growing number of programs organized by anti-death penalty groups, and religious and community organizations that encourage letter-writing with inmates.

Such programs require correspondents be at least 18 years old, and most advise letter writers to keep the relationship platonic or focused on encouraging an inmate's spiritual growth. Ron Grant, who serves as chaplain at Oklahoma's Joseph Harp Correctional Facility, a medium-security prison for men, says there is a great benefit for inmates to have controlled contact with members of the community.

However, Grant said, "I try to caution my volunteers not to confuse Christian compassion and concern with romantic love."

McDonald said he wrote hundreds of letters to inmates before establishing a relationship with Harris through letters. "I wrote dozens of inmates, some one letter, some a hundred. My now-wife wrote me but would not take money or send a visitation form. I went to her post-conviction hearing and introduced myself to her family. That broke the ice," McDonald wrote in a posting on PrisonTalk.com.

While correspondence between female inmates and pen pals is common, marriages developing from these relationships are infrequent, according to Yolanda Walker, chaplain at the women's prison in Nashville where Harris is serving her sentence.

There have been 13 weddings at the facility in the past 15 years. Walker said she knows of three inmates whose marriages are going strong, but, she added, "We are also aware of marriages that do not last due to the free-world spouse being unable to stay committed to the marriage." Walker said two wedding requests have been denied. One was rejected because of the intended spouse's past charges and his parole status. The other was refused because the couple falsified information on their application.

Grant and other prison officials say they have seen examples of relationships between inmates and non-institutionalized partners develop into healthy marriages. "There are times when there is sincerity in both parties and the relationship works, but I don't encourage inmates to marry until they're released," he said.

Most states deny married inmates conjugal visits, and those that do permit them allow prison officials to restrict such privileges at their discretion. While it may seem mystifying to understand how a marriage with such limitations could be satisfying, Arthur Aron, a psychology professor at the State University of New York-Stonybrook, says it isn't that big of a stretch.

Drawing a comparison with partners of soldiers or spouses whose work keeps them away from home, Aron notes that physical separation isn't necessarily a barrier to a satisfying relationship.

For some, it may actually be helpful. "Between 20 [percent] and 30 percent of the population is uncomfortable with attachment," he said. "For some people it's threatening to be intimate, and a relationship with an incarcerated partner may give these people the sense of control they want or need when it comes to emotional closeness."

While some non-incarcerated correspondents may have a psychological aversion to emotional intimacy, inmates who post personal ads on commercial Web sites seem to crave it. Inmates don't have access to e-mail, but friends and family members can post online ads for them. Would-be pen pals peruse the convicts' profiles and pay a small fee for a particular inmate's mailing address.

Arlen Bischke, creator of MeetAnInmate.com, which hosts ads for some 2,000 prisoners, encourages correspondences with inmates, but also cautions against looking for a mate among inmates or answering requests for cash. "If an inmate asks for large amounts of money you should always suspect fraud and not be foolish. These men and women are inmates and are usually in prison for good reason. This is meet-an-inmate.com, not meet-a-girl-scout.com," Bischke's site warns.

Inmates' online ads range from the provocative to the practical. Ron Keal, 38, whose ad features a muscular bare-chested man posing seductively, is sparse on specifics but generous with metaphor.

He writes: "After 11½ years of friction, heat, pressure and pain a raw hunk of dark coal trapped between plates of solid rock has been transformed into a rare Black Diamond. … I come to your estimating eye to be tried, tested and proven positively authentic "Real." Seeing through fake like glass. Though large enough to be the rock that'll break your wrist, clear cut enough to see you[r] heart and comfort you with a touch. Take a chance by touching me -- write...because a Black Diamond is a woman's best friend."

Edward Washington, 41, takes a straightforward approach. He describes himself on InmateConnections.com as "well-groomed and clean," whose hobbies include "playing basketball, weightlifting, reading, and thinking." He'd like to write to anyone and is seeking "romance, friendship and legal help."

Adele in Gatesville, Texas, 56, has a perky pitch for potential correspondents. Pictured in a white suit and matching cowboy hat, she writes, "I am an orchid in boots and Levis. … Fun lover with morals. Clean mind, mouth and body. I'll bring you smiles and warmth and a shoulder to lean on and an ear to listen to you. … You get this little bit of pure sunshine for a U.S. postage stamp. That's cheaper than a dinner date. Satisfaction guaranteed or I'll return your undamaged heart to you."

The ads don't include the inmates' criminal history, but most states have online databases that list prisoners' offenses and release dates. InmatesPlus.com hosts links to individual states' sites, where visitors can search for information on specific inmates.

McDonald was aware of Harris' crime before he proposed, but, like many partners of inmates, he is convinced of his wife's innocence.

"She killed no one, but was there when someone else did. The conviction was in a small rural Southern community. Justice is different there," he said. Harris and her two co-defendants were represented by court-appointed attorneys. Each was sentenced to life in prison without parole.

Psychologist Elaine Aron, author of "The Highly Sensitive Person in Love," agrees with her husband's assertion that some people may actually seek out relationships with prisoners because it fits their personality type. One such personality type may be the "highly sensitive person," about 15 percent of the population, according to Aron.

An HSP is someone who is particularly empathic and often struggles with overstimulation in daily life and intimate attachments. "Their issues could dovetail quite neatly with an inmate. … They would feel particularly compassionate or sympathetic to an inmate, and at the same time feel comfortable with a relationship that comes with predictability and defined boundaries," she said.

Psychologists and researchers say individuals with a history of abuse or low self-esteem may be more likely to fall in love with a person who has committed a violent crime. Should they enter a correspondence with an inmate, they could be particularly vulnerable. "Many people in jail are sociopaths and they're very good at manipulating people," said Aron.

Sheila Isenberg said the women she interviewed for her book "Women Who Love Men Who Kill" had all experienced some sort of abuse in their past, either in their family or with a past spouse or boyfriend. "Some of these women may actually feel safer in these relationships," she said. "When their partner is incarcerated, he can't hit her or be abusive."

Grant said that may explain some of the relationships with the inmates at Joseph Harp as well. "He's not going to beat you. He's not going to be sexually abusive. He's going to be nurturing to you, and you don't need to worry a whole lot about him running around on you," Grant said.

Men who fall in love with women inmates may be casting themselves in the position of a rescuer or defender, says Isenberg.

This may not be the foundation of McDonald's love for Harris, but he is committed to working for her ultimate release. "We hope for relief. We cannot plan on it. But she was wrongly incarcerated and I took it as my citizen duty to right the injustice. Thus, there is a political crusade here," he said.

McDonald says, and prison officials confirm, that he visits Harris weekly, but he says he feels the sting of their separation during the week. "Clearly I feed off her every weekend in visitation. The relationship is very intense, very open. The negative side is spending the weekdays alone. I generally write her a few lines every day or a few pages depending on what is on my mind, but I still have to cook dinner for one, sleep alone," he said.

And while psychologists and researchers attach a host of Freudian theories to women's romantic interest in violent criminals, McDonald says Freud's protégé Carl Jung has a better take on the male-female dynamic between himself and Harris. "I must verify Carl Jung's identification of the anima in males, the animus in females. … Very clearly my wife represents the projection of my feminine side just as I represent the projection of the masculine side in her. As we both become aware of this, the relationship intensifies and there is a sharing of the inner self, those secrets no one knows. … In simple language, neither of us will ever be lonely again."