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Texas Prisons to Allow In-person Wedding Ceremonies after Prohibition on Proxy Marriages

Prisoners in Texas will once again be allowed to marry someone on the outside under new rules formulated by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDJC) in the wake of an outcry of public opinion following a September 1, 2013 ban on marriage by proxy adopted by the Texas legislature.

“Given the restrictions and understanding offenders have a legal right to marry, the agency is drafting a policy that allows an inmate to marry a non-incarcerated person within our facilities,” TDCJ spokesman Jason Clark told the Associated Press in November 2014, reversing a long-held policy that prohibited prison weddings as a security risk.

The announcement drew praise from the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas.

“We know that prisoners with strong family connections are more likely to succeed when they’re released,” said ACLU legal and policy director Rebecca L. Robertson, “and allowing prisoners to marry is one important way TDCJ can encourage and support those family bonds.”

Under the policy change, prison marriages must comply with prison visitation rules, be consistent with the prisoner’s visitation status and require no special amenities. The outside spouse is responsible for arranging all of the details, including securing the marriage license and finding and paying someone to perform the ceremony.

Texas prison officials had long permitted marriage by proxy, in which an incarcerated spouse is represented in the ceremony by a stand-in who takes the vows, but controversy erupted with the passage of a bill authored by Republican state Rep. Trent Ashby that required both persons be present for a marriage to be legal in Texas.

“We didn’t realize we were going to open up a can of worms,” said Ashby’s chief of staff Scott Riling, who noted the law was not intended to block prisoners from getting married but instead was designed to protect people from fraudulent marriages performed without their knowledge or consent.

Ashby sponsored the bill after receiving complaints from the children of an elderly man who said a Houston woman, who had been their father’s caregiver for several years, married him by proxy in order to obtain financial benefits upon his death in prison. The woman was subsequently arrested, convicted and sentenced to a 10-year prison term.

“The purpose of the bill was not to make it harder for people to get married,” said Riling. “It was to protect those that might become prey to unscrupulous people.”

The law also conflicted with at least two U.S. Supreme Court rulings that specifically recognized the right of prisoners to marry – a Wisconsin case from 1978 and again in Turner v. Safley, 482 U.S. 78 (1987). Following the enactment of Ashby’s bill, Texas was the only state to prohibit prisoners from marrying.

“We have no immediate plans to change that policy,” TDCJ spokesman Clark said at the time. “It is a security concern if you’re going to be bringing new individuals into a [prison] facility. And not only that, it’s beyond what chaplains do.”

The resultant end of prison marriages sparked immediate condemnation from prisoner advocacy groups.

“A ban on proxy marriages that completely deprives prisoners of the right to marry is ... unlikely to survive constitutional scrutiny,” Robertson noted upon the law’s passage. “Marriage is profoundly important, at the heart of our most personal and intimate relationships. That’s why the right to marry has long been recognized as a fundamental right for everyone, even for prisoners.”

Proxy marriage “gives an inmate something [positive] to take advantage of,” added Michael W. Jewell, executive director of Texas CURE. Jewell, himself a former prisoner who served 40 years for murder, was wed by proxy in 2005 and eventually released on parole in 2010. He said marriage “gives [the prisoner] an anchor out here in the free world,” and saw “a great deal of harm” resulting from the new law.

Ann Staggs agreed. Staggs used to coordinate proxy marriages via The Prison Show, a Houston-based radio program for prisoners. “The men that have someone that they know is to be a permanent part of their life seem to do better in prison than the ones that don’t,” she stated.

“I wasn’t following it that closely and was surprised when it went through,” Jennifer Ershabek, executive director of the Texas Inmate Families Association, said of Rep. Ashby’s legislation ending proxy marriages. “You don’t realize it can’t happen until you’re down the road ... and then find out all of a sudden that you are no longer able to be married.”

On July 28, 2015, the TDCJ revised Administrative Directive AD-03.42, concerning prisoner marriages. Under the revised policy, prison officials “shall permit offenders to be married on TDCJ property or contracted facilities.” Each prison “shall provide two non-visitation workdays per month for offenders to be married in the visitation area of the offender’s assigned unit.” Marriages between two prisoners are not permitted, ceremonies can not be held in prison chapels, nor can a non-incarcerated spouse bring in a wedding ring to give to the prisoner they are marrying. Offenders who are eligible for contact visits shall be allowed to hold hands during the ceremony and can share “a brief embrace and kiss at the end of the process.”


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