I married Carole in the visiting room at the federal prison in Fort Dix, New Jersey, on June 24, 2003. Although nearly 10 full years have passed since then, I still remember our courtship and the deliberate steps we took to nurture our marriage in spite of the prison atmosphere.
Carole and I knew each other through grade school, junior high, and high school. We grew up in Lake Forest Park, a suburb of North Seattle, but we were not close friends as children. After we graduated from Shorecrest High School, in 1982, our paths went in different directions and we lost touch with each other. She married someone and had two children soon after graduation, and I began a reckless transition into adulthood. In 1987, authorities arrested me for my role in a scheme to distribute cocaine.
In my book
Earning Freedom: Conquering a 45-year Prison Term,
I wrote in depth about how Carole later came into my life, but I can provide a thumbnail sketch here. Carole was coordinating the 20-year reunion for our graduating class from Shorecrest. Her efforts of preparing for that event in 2002 exposed her to some of my published writing and she learned that I was incarcerated. By then, she was divorced and I was 15 years into my prison term.
I remember being surprised one day at mail call when a guard handed me a letter from Carole. She wrote about the 20-year high school reunion, but also scolded me about the disgraceful decisions I had made in selling cocaine. Her letter struck me as being somewhat presumptuous. After all, 15 years had passed since my imprisonment began and I had worked very hard during that decade and a half to both educate myself and reconcile with society. By then I was a man of 38, no longer the young fool I was at 23.
I responded to Carole’s letter, expressing remorse for the bad decisions I had made during my youth and describing steps I had taken through the course of my journey to grow into a better citizen. I wrote about my principled plan to educate myself, to contribute to society, and to build a strong support network. That letter led to a correspondence, our correspondence led to a romance, and that romance led to us falling in love. But I was scheduled to serve at least 10 more years in prison, and that wouldn’t be easy for Carole.
At the time, Carole was living in Lake Oswego, Oregon, so it was difficult for us to visit. By the fall of 2002 we wanted to join our lives together, but I was inclined to wait until authorities would release me. There were too many complications surrounding the prison experience. I knew that guards could uproot my life at any minute and transfer me to solitary confinement or to a different prison anywhere in the United States. That kind of upheaval would be hard on her. We would have limited access to visiting and rules would only permit us to talk on the phone for an average of 10 minutes each day. All of those complications were a normal part of my life, but I thought they would be traumatic for Carole. Still, we were in love and she insisted on moving from Oregon to New Jersey so that we would be able to visit at every opportunity, which would only amount to a few hours, three days each week. It turned out to be the best possible decision, and we made the most out of the time we did have together.
Books that I was in the process of writing for academia would provide Carole with some financial resources, but my inability to promote my work effectively from prison made writing for publication, a fickle income stream. She wanted to marry, but I insisted that before we could marry, we would have to create financial stability, some way for her to earn a livable wage, regardless of what authorities did to me.
Carole suggested that if she were to earn a nursing degree, she would be able to find work anywhere, I knew that if I could somehow support her through nursing school, I would feel as if I were living as something more than a prisoner. I would be a man helping the woman I loved. We discussed how we could achieve this goal together, and how working toward it would bring more meaning to both her life and my life. That unified vision brought us closer together.
At the time, President George Bush was leading our country into war in Iraq, bringing great instability to the labour market. I worried that if Carole did not have a steady income, I would serve my final decade under considerable stress. I offered to deploy all of the earnings that my writing generated toward her education, and she pledged to live frugally, study hard, and join me in a 100 per cent commitment to build a strong family, despite the obstacles around us. In June 2003, we married in the prison’s visiting room, and Carole began the long process of studying through biology, microbiology, chemistry, and all of the other prerequisites that would be necessary for acceptance into nursing school.
The structured, deliberate course we established helped. Carole did not commit a crime, but her love for me brought her willingly into the cogs of the prison machine. To keep from being derailed by the bureaucracy that controlled my life, we charted our own course, taking affirmative steps in ways that would empower us both. That strategy guided me through my first 15 years of imprisonment and my disciplined, clearly defined way of life convinced Carole that she, too, could find a great inner satisfaction by joining me and following the same strategies during the final decade that I was scheduled to serve. Carole committed to the vision wholeheartedly.
We became a prison family, but we were a family nonetheless. We visited each other whenever guards would allow, we spoke over the phone whenever rules permitted, and we wrote letters every day. Rather than lamenting over what we did not have, we charted a course that would allow us to build and strengthen our love, the prison machine notwithstanding. By clearly defining what we were after, we knew that we could overcome the obstacles as they arose and grow closer together, celebrating each achievement that came our way.
The months turned into years and together we seized opportunities. Carole became my liaison to the publishing world, overseeing the development of a website that would help me build a personal brand and market my work. Rather than crying over the birthdays and holidays that she would have to spend alone, Carole instead focused on completing assignments that would lead to her nursing degree. Every day brought us closer together.
I wrote to Carole every day, expressing my deep respect and admiration for her. She visited whenever guards would allow, and when they locked me in solitary confinement or transferred me to prisons across state lines as punishment for writing to develop a voice from within the bowels of America’s prison system, Carole became my advocate against the system and uprooted her life to join me.
Nurturing a marriage from within prison boundaries requires an enormous commitment. As Carole’s husband, I considered it my duty and responsibility to establish clear plans and then execute those plans as flawlessly as possible, creating opportunities out of nothing more than blank pieces of paper and a ballpoint pen. We triumphed over the trials and tribulations, strengthening our love every day, and growing closer as a couple in spite of the resistance we faced. I brought numerous books to market, generating financial resources to support her. Carole did her part by earning credentials to become a licensed vocational nurse, and then she advanced those credentials to become a registered nurse. We were achieving a level of success, despite living in a culture that seemed exquisitely designed to perpetuate failure. Our joint commitment made us a stronger.
On August 13, 2012, Carole stood waiting to drive me away from the prison. I served 9,135 days inside and she passed through a decade of celibacy awaiting my release. We had never been together outside the watchful eyes of prison guards, but suddenly I could hold her in my arms and kiss her tears of joy. Our love continues to grow stronger every day as we build a new life together in the world.
Editor’s note: This answer originally appeared in Quora, in answer to the question, “How do you nurture and maintain a marriage from prison?” We have republished the answer with permission from its author. Santos’s book can be purchased online here.
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