*Some names have been changed.
Life in prison can be exceedingly lonely, especially if you do not have a significant other in your corner to console you when the times get rough. I’ve witnessed grown men cry during the holidays, for instance, due to feeling abandoned by a girlfriend, fiance or family.
There are, of course, opportunities for finding companionship in prison. Some develop pen pal relationships that blossom into real love affairs. Other find love inside, becoming open to same-sex relationships they might not have considered on the outside. Personally, I’ve never been tempted to go that route, but I’ve developed genuine respect for those who did.
Several years back, I was exercising on the weight courts at a facility upstate, when I witnessed my first prison wedding. Two men were participating in a ritual called “jumping the broom.” The custom, which seems to have originated in England, was practiced by African American slaves and is now a regular custom at African American weddings. The practice is much the same in prison, except that the jumping itself constitutes an informal marriage. On this particular occasion, an inmate officiated as the couple held hands, jumping together over a broom while others gathered around them to throw rice. Pronounced a couple, they kissed, then “spun the yard,” or walked around the open area, holding hands as the beaming husband showed off his new bride.
I’ll admit I found the ceremony a bit shocking at first. But in the years since, as I’ve gotten to know more people partnered this way, I’ve come to see such relationships with an open mind.
About five years later, I was hanging out in a friend’s cell when Green* waved me over.
“Ay yo, O look at these pictures bro,” Green said. “It’s my boo-boo.”
He showed me the pictures he had received through the mail, photos of a transgender woman who’d been released a few months before.
“Why you asking?” was my answer. The whole subject made me uncomfortable. It sounded like a trick question, so I left it alone.
“You remember Lady Red,” he said. “This is shawty I was with, and now she is sending me pictures. I’m in love with her.”
“How do you hide a relationship with Lady Red from the mother of your children?” I asked him.
“I married Lady Red in prison because my baby mama stopped visiting me and she is always acting up,” he said. “Lady Red take good care of me. My family doesn’t need to send me money or packages since Lady Red spends money on me for commissary and she will be buying expensive designer clothes for me to wear once I leave prison.”
I was shocked that he mentioned that, because being viewed as homosexual in prison can be dangerous. Most people in prison are homophobic, biased and judgmental. But I couldn’t help wondering, who was I to judge another human being for finding happiness in their life?
Recently, as I was pondering this question, I reached out to another person who is in “crazy love,” as he put it, “with the girl of my dreams.” He asked me to call him Big Black and told me how he met Moët. “This story is off-the-hook, homey,” he began.
Years ago, he was incarcerated at another facility. “It was a cold winter,” he recalled. “There was snow everywhere, and I was spinning the yard to keep warm.”
Big Black had been having an issue with his baby mama, but hadn’t been able to reach her. “Out of nowhere,” he said, “Some fine young lady who resembled Naomi Campbell came up to me and asked me was I okay.”
“Not really,” he told her. “I just called home but no one picked up. No one cares for me anymore.”
“My name is Moët,” she said, “and I can care for you.”
We both started to laugh.
Big Black described how he’d opened up to Moët, who was a beautiful transgender woman. And how she’d listened more attentively than anyone ever had. “By the time I noticed, officers were yelling on the go-back and the whole rec period had went by,” he said. “The next day we met up and just kicked it again. Moët was the only one there for me in a time of need.”
Not long after, Big Black found Moët in the yard sobbing.
Her boyfriend had hit her, she explained. Watching her cry, Big Black instinctively embraced her. “Damn, it felt so good to hug someone,” he recalled. He could feel the built-up stresses of prison life starting to fade away for both of them. “One thing led to the next and then we started to kiss right there in front of everybody in the yard. For a moment, I thought I was in a movie the way things played out.” At first, he couldn’t believe what he was doing, but then he realized, “I don’t care what anyone thinks of me!”
“I liked her because she has good qualities a man like me can enjoy, like listening to my bullshit. Plus her body is very curvaceous and sexy.”
Right then, Big Black proposed, and they were married the next day. “We had a big ceremony with more than 50 people watching,” he told me. “The people were throwing rice all over us, cheering us on. Dressed in our best attire, polo shirts and state green pants, the both of us jumped the broom. She broke it off with the abusive boyfriend and started to see me as her main man. Ever since, she has been my ride-or-die chick, the one I’ve been looking for my whole life.”
“Wow, that’s an amazing story,” I told him.
“It’s us against the world,” he replied. “I told you that the story would be off-the-hook, homey.”
Living in a cage is a terrible experience, but there aren’t enough bars in prison to contain the love we can feel for our fellow human beings. Though there might be boundaries, love has no labels and no barriers.
This story was approved for publication by an official at Wallkill Correctional Facility.
Omar Padilla is a student in NYU’s Prison Education Project. You can email him at [email protected], and read more writing by PEP students in The Wallkill Journal.