For every sentence read out in court, there’s a family serving time for a crime that they didn’t commit.
Giant tacky teddy bears are in every shop window, heart-shaped boxes are being sold in phenomenal numbers, rose petals are being scattered on beds, and candle-lit bubble baths are being run. If you walk up and down your street, you might even hear the sultry crooning of Marvin Gaye as “Let’s Get It On” is blasted from a bedroom window. Gas stations are about to become a hotspot for those who have fucked up and forgotten a gift again.
Which is to say: Valentine’s Day is upon us. But while you’re booking tables for romantic dinners and spending hours in the changing rooms of lingerie stores, there are millions for whom February 14 isn’t just uncelebrated, but impossible to celebrate.
As of February 3, 2017, there are about 85,000 people incarcerated in the UK. In the U.S., the country with the highest prison population in the world, more than 2.1 million people are behind bars. It is estimated that there around 9 million incarcerated people worldwide.
There are millions for whom February 14 isn’t just uncelebrated, but impossible to celebrate.
For every sentence read out in court, there’s a family serving time for a crime that they didn’t commit. And as Valentine’s Day rolls around, it can be particularly difficult to handle the emotional stress of a partner behind bars.
“As with any holiday, visits get requested and snapped up super fast,” says Lauren, a prison officer from the UK. “That leads inmates who haven’t been lucky enough to get some time with their loved one to become even more agitated. Sometimes I think it’d be best to get rid of visits on days like Valentine’s Day altogether.”
That said, Lauren notes that there are often attempts to try to make the day special; in some prisons she’s worked in, officers have decorated the visiting hall for the holiday. But, she notes, “making a thing of it like that can highlight the loss for anyone who doesn’t have their loved one with them, so we try to keep it modest.”
As Valentine’s Day rolls around, it can be particularly difficult to handle the emotional stress of a partner behind bars.
Those lucky enough to get visits on Valentine’s Day won’t get any special treatment, however. Lauren says the set-up remains the same, and while some officers — herself included — might allow a discretionary extra kiss at the end of the visit, Valentine’s Day is treated like any other visiting day, except perhaps for some paper hearts here and there.
As stuffed bears and candlelit baths mark another Valentine’s Day for those not incarcerated, it’s important to consider that not every couple has the opportunity to celebrate — and that not every love story fits the narrative the holiday exalts.
“The dynamic of the relationship shifts instantly,” says Hetty, 38, a job-seeking mother of three from the Midlands, England, whose husband has been in jail for four and a half years for his part in an organized crime unit found responsible for money laundering and attempted murder. “Everything changed the minute the police knocked on our door. After that moment, it was never the same again.
“I went from being a financially stable full-time mum with a committed partner, to a single mum living on state handouts with an inmate for a husband in literally three seconds — two sharp knocks on the door. That was all it took.”
For Hetty, the months following her husband’s arrest only unearthed deeper, more complicated emotions. Haunted by the idea that her husband had committed a violent crime without her knowing, she became fixated on remembering the quirks in his behavior in the time leading up to his arrest.
“I was thinking back to all the times I was chatting to him over dinner about holidays, school trips, a new washing machine — all these things that were so normal, when all that time he knew what he’d done.”
It’s estimated that there are around 9 million people worldwide behind bars.
The thing about having a relationship with someone in jail, Hetty says, is that you are never given that time to talk it over.
“People always think that visits are going to be these joyous occasions where you jump into each other’s arms and tell each other how much you miss each other, but to be honest, by the time you’ve gotten there and been searched, you only have time to talk about the necessities — usually the trial or whether there’ll be a visit for Father’s Day, that kind of thing. There’s no room for romance anymore.
“We let Valentine’s Day pass us by — it doesn’t seem as important as the other special occasions that the kids are involved in. It’s kind of a selfish holiday for us.”
Keeping the romance alive with one half of a couple in prison is no easy feat. In the UK, conjugal visits are non-existent, despite calls from European Prison Observatory to “allow prisoners to maintain and develop relationships in as normal a manner as possible” and petitions from the public to change policy. In the U.S., conjugal visits are only allowed in four states — California, Connecticut, New York, and Washington — with New Mexico and Mississippi canceling their programs within the past three years due to budget cuts.
‘We let Valentine’s Day pass us by. It’s kind of a selfish holiday for us.’
Securing a conjugal visit in the states where it is allowed is a victory in itself, with only medium to low security prisons opening it up it as an option. The regulations vary vastly from state to state, with some making it easier than others. But as a general rule, to qualify for a conjugal visit, inmates must have a clean record of good behavior and must not have been convicted of a sexual assault.
Other conditions fall onto the visitors themselves. Their relationship to the inmate, their background, and their criminal history will be closely scrutinized before any conjugal visitation order is granted.
Without the physical intimacy, couples must rely solely on verbal and written communication to maintain a romantic relationship.
“We’re really struggling to keep the spark in our relationship,” says Nina*, a 33-year-old mother of two from London. Her husband is serving seven years for fraud and has been in prison and away from the family for nearly two years.
“Telephone calls and letters are monitored, so we never have phone sex or anything like that. Even kissing in visits is hard for us — some couples need to be hosed down! We’re both very wary of Big Brother watching.”
‘We’re both very wary of Big Brother watching.’
When I speak to Nina, she tells me that she was “just thinking about Valentine’s Day.” Her husband is currently serving his sentence in a category D prison — otherwise known as an open prison in the UK — and will be eligible for home visits once it’s been signed off on by a parole officer. The couple had hoped to have their first real date in over three years for Valentine’s Day, but Nina says their plans had been dashed when the open visits weren’t granted:
“We’d hoped to go out for a meal with the kids somewhere local to the prison. I tried to get a visiting order for Valentine’s Day or the weekend before, but because of the time of year, the visits get snapped up. I snoozed, so I lose. I’m not very good at sentimentality, so I find Valentine’s Day extra hard. I’m not good at writing love letters or sending pictures — he’s always complaining about it.
He sent me a card last year and I’m sure he’ll do the same again, but I’d rather wait until he’s out to celebrate. This situation is so surreal — I would never have thought I would be here. I don’t want any memories of this period in our relationship.”
Nina explained that once home visits are allowed, her husband will be able to come home for 12 hours at a time, offering them the first chance to have sex since he was incarcerated. When her husband went to jail, Nina was heavily pregnant, meaning they haven’t shared a bed in over three years.
“Most people choose to get a hotel room when the open visits begin,” she says. “I feel like it’ll make sex feel dirty, as we’ll essentially be paying by the hour. The local hoteliers must recognize the couples of prison visits, and it’ll just heighten my feelings of shame. I’d much rather wait to have sex in the comfort of my own home.”
Nina says that she’s never had a particularly high sex drive, which helps to take the edge of this period of enforced celibacy and to stay loyal to her husband, despite him not being around.
‘I’d much rather wait to have sex in the comfort of my own home.’
Jendella, 27, from London, says that it’s weird how quickly you adapt to a sex-free relationship. “That doesn’t mean it’s easy,” she says, “it just means you get used to it.”
“Staying loyal would probably be a lot harder if I didn’t have a child. Being a mother takes up most of my time, and then having a husband in prison is like having another child — constantly sorting out their affairs, dealing with their solicitors, being the main point of contact for their friends and people who want to get in touch.
“It takes up so much emotional energy that having an affair sounds more exhausting than tempting.”
For Valentine’s Day this year, Jendella and her husband have agreed to let the day go by uncelebrated:
“Last year we sent cards and I did see him on the day, but it felt a bit forced given the circumstances.
It’s easier to allow days like Valentine’s, anniversaries, birthdays to pass than to try and makes them feel special because that can feel worse sometimes. I guess for others it might be a comfort, but for us it just highlights the absence.”
Since Jendella’s husband went to prison, she says that the emotional dynamic of their relationship has shifted. “You find yourself holding back from telling them what’s happening on the outside because you don’t want to worry them, and you know that they do the same regarding what’s happening on the inside. Most of the time you find yourself talking about what’s happening in other people’s lives, or reminiscing about memories that you share rather than talking about the present.”
“Sometimes he asks me if I miss him,” says Nina. “I do miss him, but I think it’s easier not to let the emotion come to the surface.” Nina explains the emotional toll of the situation on her and her family:
“I’m a volcano waiting to erupt. I think that anger holds me back — I’m fucking angry he put me and the kids in this situation. I feel like he gets all the support and as the family we’re left to fend for ourselves.
We have to face the daggers from people who know what he did. The questions about where the dad of my children is from strangers; the feeling of living as a single mother but having a partner who still wants control over your life; having to struggle financially whilst finding money to send them money.
I’m looking forward to when this is all over and we can celebrate Valentine’s Day like any other couple. Not stealing kisses in a cold visiting hall with other horny couples with guards and kids watching.
It’s a lot to cope with, having him inside. I wouldn’t wish this sentence on my worst enemy.”
*Some names changed to protect identity