Prison Marriages: Tenn. Escape Raises Questions


Aug. 11, 2005 — -- George Hyatte -- the Tennessee felon who escaped Tuesday in what authorities described as a "Bonnie-and-Clyde-style shootout" outside a Tennessee courthouse -- has used everything from his fists to a toothbrush and razor blade to break out of jails. In this latest escape, he used his wife.

Jennifer Lyn Hyatte, a 31-year-old licensed nurse practitioner, reportedly responded without hesitation to Hyatte's command to "shoot 'em," when she allegedly unleashed a deadly hail of gunfire, but a prison chaplain present at the couple's prison wedding said she was reluctant to marry Hyatte.

"Jennifer dragged her feet on the marriage. He was anxious to get married. She was dragging her feet," said Jerry Welborn, chaplain at the Riverbend Maximum Security Institute in Nashville, Tenn., where the couple wed on May 21.

George Hyatte, 34, who was two years into a 35-year sentence for assault and robbery convictions, was leaving the Roane County Courthouse in Kingston, Tenn., when the pair made their daring daytime escape. One guard was killed and another was wounded, setting off a nationwide hunt before the couple was apprehended in Ohio late Wednesday night.

It's not clear exactly when the pair met, but their relationship was apparent when she was employed under contract as a nurse at Tennessee's Northwest Correctional Complex in Tiptonville in 2004. Their courtship at the facility was brief -- less than a month. She worked at the facility for less than three months, before she was fired in August of 2004 when her relationship with Hyatte was discovered. He was an inmate at the prison from July 28, 2004, until his transfer to the Riverbend site on Sept. 1.

But Jennifer Hyatte's dismissal and George Hyatte's transfer didn't deter the couple from pursuing a relationship. On Nov. 30, 2004, they filed letters notifying Riverbend Warden Ricky Bell of their intent to marry. Bell approved the application eight days later.

Bell, who began his career with the Tennessee Department of Corrections in 1970, and has been a warden since 1992, said George Hyatte's violent criminal history -- coupled with his successful prior escapes -- prompted some concern when he reviewed the application. He permitted only a non-contact wedding for the couple. Bell said George Hyatte was a "close-custody inmate" in the Riverbend facility. He was housed in the prison's general population, but needed a little more supervision. "He was not allowed to have visits. So, I opted to permit only a non-contact wedding."

Chaplain Welborn also expressed reservations about the couple's marriage. He said he asked Methodist minister Nancy Neeley to work with the couple through their required counseling sessions. Welborn said he and Neeley informed Jennifer Hyatte of her future spouse's violent criminal history, his escape attempts, drug offenses and the time he had remaining on his sentence. "She was unaware of many of his issues," Welborn said.

Their counseling may have given the bride-to-be pause. The couple was approved for a marriage in February, and a date was set for April 16, but "Jennifer pushed it back to May 21st," Welborn said.

The simple ceremony involved just the couple, the chaplain, the warden and guards. They were not permitted any outside guests. The newlyweds were not allowed to kiss or have any physical contact. Welborn remembers that the new bride didn't appear uneasy or distraught after the ceremony.

"I do recall Nancy [Neeley] saying she felt Jennifer was a woman in denial," he said.

While the Hyattes' union highlights the clear risks in allowing certain inmates to wed, officials say Supreme Court precedent makes it difficult for them to deny prisoners' requests. In a 1987 ruling in Turner v. Safley, the U.S. Supreme Court held that prisoners had a constitutionally protected right to marry and that Missouri regulations barring all inmate marriages infringed on prisoners' rights.

In her majority opinion for the court, Justice Sandra Day O'Connor wrote, "No doubt legitimate security concerns may require placing reasonable restrictions upon an inmate's right to marry, and may justify requiring approval of the superintendent. The Missouri regulation, however, represents an exaggerated response to such security objectives."

The Tennessee Department of Corrections' policy on prison marriages states: "An inmate in a correctional facility may be permitted to marry unless such marriage is found to be unlawful or to present a serious threat to the security of the institution."

If a request by Hyatte, an inmate with a long history of felony assaults, robberies -- and previous jailbreaks -- was approved, it's unclear what sort of prisoner petition wouldn't pass muster. Prison officials acknowledge that most marriages are approved.

"It's extremely unusual for us to deny a request," said Amanda Sluss, spokeswoman for the Tennessee Department of Corrections.

Sluss said inmates have successfully sued the state for a right to marry when prison officials have rejected their requests.

Jennifer Hyatte -- a woman with no prior criminal record -- is now expected to be charged with first-degree murder, along with her career criminal spouse. But prison officials say the shocking case is unlikely to lead to a change in policy on prisoner marriages.

"We're bound by the court's ruling," Sluss said. She noted, however, that officials have broader discretion on visitation rights. "Marital status does not enhance visitation rights," she noted.

Bell said officials will frequently delay requests and restrict visitation rights as security measures.

"I don't so much have a problem with inmates marrying," he said, speaking generally. "The problem I have is when they marry former employees. We can get into major security implications if a civilian spouse has extensive knowledge of the prison system. I have some feelings about that. I don't think that should be permitted."

Noting that Jennifer Hyatte had been briefly employed as an outside contractor at the Tiptonville site, Bell said the couple were allowed only mail and telephone contact.

Welborn, the chaplain present at the Hyattes' wedding, stressed that he wouldn't like to see an attempt to impose a blanket restriction on inmate marriages.

"I don't see it as an either/or situation," he said. "You're dealing with a human dimension. You'll probably have more losses than successes, but you'll have some successes. I have seen some relationships that were truly redemptive for inmates. But we have to be consistent."

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