Leaving WorthamWorkd at 4:30AM to head to Ramsey I Unit, I had been coordinating with Elena who was landing at Hobby to arrange a meeting with her while Cindy and I were in the Houston area. Ramsey I Unit is about twenty minutes outside of Houston near Stringfellow Unit which was previously Ramsey II Unit. It’s unusual for TDCJ Unit to have a number behind the name.
Darrington, Terrell, Stringfellow and Ramsey I are located within close proximity of one another. In fact, Ramsey I, Terrell and Stringfellow are within 5 minutes of one another similar to Michael and Coffield within 15-20 minutes of Beto, Gurney and Powledge Units in Tennessee Colony.
Powledge, Beto, Coffield, Gurney, and Michael work in cooperation: Feedmill and Grain Storage, Farm Shop, Cow/Calf Operation, Poultry Laying Operation, Swine Farrowing/ Nursery/Finishing Operations, Pork Processing Plant, Security Horses, Security Pack Canines, Edible and Field Crops, and Unit Garden.
There are many cities in Texas that feature clusters of Units within close proximity of one another. Gatesville as well as Huntsville, Rosharon and Tennessee Colony have numerous Units within minutes of one another.
Last month, I had a wedding at Ellis Unit in Huntsville in the morning and another at Crain Unit in the afternoon. Huntsville to Gatesville is a haul. Two hours and forty six minutes from one another (based on traffic) makes for a very long day. Gatesville Units house predominantly females although Hughes Unit (also in Gatesville) houses men.
Because I must “estimate the time inside each unit” as well as the distance between them when stacking unit weddings the same day, a wide berth of at least an hour “inside” is required. Factors that can cause a delay are waiting on the Chaplain or our escort as well as waiting on the inmate to be located. Because of timelines, it’s best to have your loved one request a lay in the day prior to your scheduled inmate wedding.
My first conversation with Elena was approximately a year ago. I had been returning from Huntsville Units with Cindy when Elena called me regarding inmate marriages. This isn’t unusual as I’m frequently contacted by reporters, production companies and networks regarding my unique client bases.
Inmate Officiant services are available in many states although Texas is my “busiest booking” state. I’m not geographically limited to one state. Neither are Cindy or my niece, Leigh Ann. We cover numerous states.
Elena is not only a journalist but also an award winning documentary filmmaker. She had called while in Houston doing research for her film project and we’ve stayed in touch over the past year. Elena was looking for Dutch women marrying death row inmates in Texas. She is passionate about this project and has found two women to date. One is living in Arizona and married to her inmate while the other is living in the Netherlands and unmarried.
It had been hoped that Elena could visit Polunsky Unit as she had heard that Wednesday’s are media days at Polunsky. But, in order to get media access, you must go through TDCJ as a journalist who travelled with me a few weeks ago to several TDCJ Units did to obtain access and clearance.
During my two days with Ella, she had hoped to visit all of my scheduled Unit weddings but TDCJ wouldn’t give Ella access to all 4 of my Units but did give her the option of choosing one Unit to witness me officiating a marriage. Ella chose Polunsky. Getting into Polunsky requires being on the list.
TDCJ Unit weddings are scheduled between 9AM and 4PM. TDCJ Unit weddings do not take place on weekends as the visitation area is in use by visitors. Weddings at Polunsky take place after 5PM.
Because Polunsky schedules weddings after 5PM, I was able to schedule Coffield Unit at 9:30AM, Michael Unit at 11:30AM, Holliday Unit at 2PM and Polunsky Unit at 5:30PM on the same day. Three cities and four Units in ONE DAY is a long day. Ella was in my suv for 14 hours from Fort Worth to Tennessee Colony to Huntsville to Livingston to Fort Worth. A day in my life always involves driving, careful planning and orchestrating. I’m OCD and constantly aware of distance and time. I have to be.
Polunsky houses death row inmates in Texas. Polunsky was named after Allan B. Polunsky, a former chairman of the Texas Board of Criminal Justice who is now the chairman of the Public Safety Commission, the governing board of the Texas Department of Public Safety.
Polunsky houses Texas’s “supermax” units and is notable for being the location of Texas’s death row for men (executions, though, are conducted at the Huntsville Unit in Huntsville).
Due to the timeline and requirements to visit Polunsky, Elena was unable to visit the Unit this trip. An inmate must also agree to an interview or media access.
Media access inquiries must go through TDCJ. In order to obtain access, you will need the inmates name and ID number as well as consent from the inmate and TDCJ.
Since I’m always asked about gaining access to Units, I’m attaching the following information from TDCJ Communications.
Media Policies and Guidelines for Offender Interviews:
Reporters wishing to interview offenders incarcerated within the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) should submit their request in writing, by fax or e-mail to Jeremy Desel, Director of Communications, at (936) 437-6055 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
All requests must be submitted on the news organization’s letterhead, and should include the reporter’s name and contact information, including an e-mail address. The request should also include the offender’s name and other identifying information (date of birth, TDCJ number, etc.) when known.
Interviews with general population offenders may be scheduled any weekday during regular business hours with the permission of the unit warden.
Request for interviews must be submitted at least three working days prior to the date of the reporter’s desired visit. Reporters will have one hour to interview an individual offender. A reasonable amount of time will be allowed for camera crews to set up equipment. This set-up time is not considered part of the hour granted to the reporter.
Interviews with men on Death Row are conducted on Wednesdays from 1:00 p.m to 3:00 p.m. Requests for these interviews must be submitted no later than noon on Monday prior to the desired Wednesday visit.
Reporters will have one hour to interview an individual offender on Men’s Death Row. A reasonable amount of time will be allowed for camera crews to set up equipment. This set-up time is not considered part of the hour granted to the reporter.
Interviews with women on Death Row are conducted on Tuesdays from 1:00 p.m. to 3:00 p.m. Requests for these interviews must be submitted no later than noon on the Monday prior to the desired Tuesday visit.
Reporters will have one hour to interview an individual offender on Women’s Death Row. A reasonable amount of time will be allowed for camera crews to set up equipment. This set-up time is not considered part of the hour granted to the reporter.
All interviews will take place in the unit’s regular visitation area. No other photos or video footage may be taken in or outside the unit unless specified by a Communications Officer, or the unit warden.
Crews are limited to no more than three people. Each crewmember must have a valid driver license, passport or other official form of photo identification in order to enter a unit.
Reporters are not allowed to take the following items with them into TDCJ units:
Tobacco products or lighters
Purses or briefcases
Pocketknives, fingernail clippers, or similar items.
The following items are allowed in the reporter’s possession: recording devices, wireless microphones, notepads, writing instruments and camera equipment.
It is recommended that reporters arrive at the unit at least 30 minutes before their scheduled interview time.
Everyone entering the unit will be subjected to a pat-down security search.
Conservative dress is encouraged for all visitors. Clothing that is tight fitting, revealing, or made with see-through fabrics is not allowed. Sleeveless shirts and dresses are allowed, but must cover the shoulders. Dresses or skirts should be no shorter than three (3) inches above the middle of the knee. It is also preferred that reporters and their crew members not wear white.
Reporters are generally allowed to interview individual offenders once every 90 days. Exceptions may be made by the Director of Communications if there is a major status change in the offender’s case.
Attorneys, families, spiritual advisors, and other individuals on an offender’s personal visitation list are not permitted to be present during media interviews, nor are reporters able to accompany any of these individuals on their personal visits.
Media representatives may not be listed on an offender’s visitation list if they wish to be recognized as media by the Communications Department. Any journalist who is placed on an offender’s personal visitation list will not be allowed to visit that offender as a media representative. The organization affiliated with the reporter placed on the offender’s personal visitation list will also not be able to visit the offender.
Failure to adhere to the agency’s media policies and/or guidelines may result in removal from the unit. Such failure may also jeopardize the organization’s ability to conduct future interviews at TDCJ facilities.
Questions about TDCJ’s media policies may be directed to the Communications Department at (936) 437-6052.
At the time Elena initially contacted me, I didn’t know of anyone from the Netherlands and had no one from Europe on my client roster. But, I posted on my FB and Instagram pages in search of ladies for Elena’s project just the same in the event that there were ladies who would reach out to Elena.
Several months ago, while en route to TDCJ Wynn Unit, a call from a Germany number came through. It was a daughter who wanted assistance getting her mother married to an inmate at Wynn.
Since I was driving there, I found this to be ironic. Calling about Wynn Unit while headed to Wynn Unit that is. The more I listened though, the flags started flying. The problem? The mother didn’t speak English and the inmate didn’t speak German.
Heads up for anyone wondering why this would be a problem… marriages of convenience are strictly forbidden in the United States and constitute marriage fraud.
Marriage fraud is a felony. If you cannot communicate with your partner, I can assure you that neither I or anyone else on my staff will conduct a marriage ceremony.
I’m marrying a deaf inmate to a deaf client in a few weeks at Estelle Unit but they can communicate and understand each other. They can also understand my marriage ceremony.
The daughter wanting help marrying her mother to an inmate DID speak English. But, she didn’t want to help her mother because she is already married to an inmate at another Unit and “busy with her own life.” I found this statement odd and alarming. The daughter could have traveled to Walker County or assisted her mother with the process but chose not to. Why? She was too busy? She wanted someone to help her mother get a marriage license I.E. me and also to marry her to an inmate at Wynn Unit but the fact that her mother couldn’t communicate with the inmate was a huge red flag. This problem would be a hurdle.
I spoke to this young lady of my concerns and drove at the same time explaining why and how the communication aspect would be difficult. After all, I don’t speak German. The daughter speaks English. The daughter didn’t want to get involved. Hmm. I am more than a little familiar with marriage law. I advise people on a regular basis of why marriages of convenience are not in their best interest AND a crime.
The daughter wanted to drop her mother in my lap but this situation needed an immigration attorney first and foremost. I am blunt. This hot potato situation needed a hot minute. How was her mother going to file for a marriage license when they are only available in English and Spanish? I had a wide array of questions pertaining to the problems and the daughter “not wanting to get involved” really bothered me. It’s her mother. Why wouldn’t she want to get involved or help her? After going over all of the reasons this request wasn’t simple, I never heard from the daughter again.
Marriage Fraud is a crime… ICE Marriage Fraud Brochure. Whether the inmate is unaware of the penalties associated with marrying an illegal Alien who is trying to obtain citizenship or not, if you call me with suspicious reasons or intentions, I’m going to advise you of what a marriage of convenience is and suggest you seek an attorney.
The inmate is not my client. The person in the free world is. But if I cannot communicate with you, you are not a client. I will not conduct a marriage ceremony via electronic device.
Both parties marrying at a prison with me officiating (whether one is behind glass or not) can both hear and understand me AND are standing within 3-5 feet in front of me.
I do not perform proxy marriages and personally feel such marriage ceremonies are as far removed from “traditional” as you could possibly get.
Yesterday morning, someone stopped me at the Parker County Jail to advise me of their belief that “people only marry inmates to obtain conjugal visits.” Ignorance speaks without forethought. Texas does not allow conjugal visits. The states with conjugal visits are California, Connecticut, New York and Washington.
I’m well aware there are are other states and even other countries that allow such visits but can assure you that none of my clients are marrying an inmate solely to benefit from a conjugal visit. For those unaware of what a conjugal visit is, here’s the Wikipedia link… Wikipedia Conjugal Visits.
I follow the letter of the law pertaining to marriage ceremonies and am well versed on family law and marriage law. There are those who aren’t but I’m not one of them. People going online to officiate marriages that have no idea of the burden their role carries need to educate themselves.
Proxy Marriage is no longer an option within TDCJ. Both parties must be present and coherent. There must be a valid marriage license. No someone cannot get a marriage license for you. You must do that yourself. There cannot be two absent parties. An absentee affidavit is only available for one party. The absent party AKA the inmate who is unable to appear in person.
Other states require the inmate to incur the expense of being transported to the clerks office while Texas eases the financial burden by allowing Absentee Affidavits in place of the person appearing at the clerks office.
Communication is vital to marriage. If you cannot communicate with your partner and you happen to be here on a Visa, your marriage will be closely scrutinized. Why would you want marry someone you cannot communicate with?
For the past year, I’ve not found any European women marrying death row inmates other than the one call from the daughter wanting someone to help marry her mother to an inmate at Wynn. I don’t speak German which is obviously a problem as well. TDCJ does have hearing impaired translators.
Marrying a death row inmate or “lifer” is a heavy burden. They will never come home. They will never see parole. There is no happy ending or Vow Renewal long after lock up. Only a very driven person could take on such a complicated relationship. I’ve met several. They accept what they cannot change. Their relationship is based on letters, phone calls and visits. They will never hold hands or touch. They will forever be separated by bullet proof glass.
Since Cindy and I were on site at Ramsey meeting Shenequil, I sent an email to Elena letting her know our timeline. Shenequil and I waited in the lobby at Ramsey for our escort to the visitation area while Cindy waited in my suv fielding phone calls and emails.
This wedding was a reschedule and I was excited to finally meet my bride and client in person. We sat and waited on her groom and his escort together.
As he walked into the room, I decided to use a painted wall for the backdrop and moved tables and chairs to clear an area for the ceremony.
Shenequil told me that she hoped to have her husband home for Christmas. He’s hopeful too. As we drove out from the Unit, searching for an area for photos our drive brought us to city hall.
Cindy and I began unloading our inventory for some colorful and fun photos while visiting with my new bride. I love learning more about my amazing clients.
Shenequil had a long drive back to Henderson and Cindy and I were headed to finally meet Elena. I chose Taste Of Texas which was about 20 minutes from Hobby and 38 minutes from our location in Angleton.
We had never been to this restaurant but liked the name. Festively decorated for the holidays, Cindy, Elena and I all enjoyed a meal at Taste Of Texas and a great visit together.
Elena told us about the book, Death Row Dollies and her interest in women choosing to marry Death Row inmates. She had travelled to Arizona prior to Texas to meet a model who had married an inmate and was running a successful business from home. We also discussed another lady from the Netherlands who has had a seven year relationship with an inmate at Polunsky Unit. I offered to officiate the wedding.
Elena told us about her family and asked about our own. We are very close and very open. Elena’s mother suffered with mental illness. Our mother struggled with addiction and bad choices. Elena’s mom jumped off a building our mom sold us for $50 each on our 6th birthday. All of us became the mothers we had never known.
Hardships can define you or empower you to be stronger, more driven, more determined and more resilient. Hardship teaches compassion and wisdom.
Elena’s project will put the unique and often misunderstood stigma of prison love stories into perspective. Shining a positive light on those who love an inmate is a challenge mainly because widestream media chooses to muddy the water rather than portray these men and women who love an inmate as the warriors they truly are. They do it all and they do it alone on the outside. The live on one income. The raise their children alone. They run to answer expensive phone calls from inmates. They make their love last through extreme circumstances. Their passion and commitment are remarkable.
We look forward to seeing Elena again in the Spring as she begins filming Unconditional Love.