Finding Love Behind Bars Might Look Different Than You Think

Elizabeth Greenwood’s new book, “Love Lockdown,” investigates dating and marriage in America’s prison system, and the author knows you’ll come to it with preconceived notions. She did herself.

“Most of us have heard about this phenomenon: people (usually women) pursuing criminals (usually men, always famous) whom they’ve learned about on the nightly news,” Greenwood writes. “The higher the profile of the criminal, the more Heloises to the Abelard.” But in researching “Love Lockdown,” Greenwood met people and learned about relationships that were less salacious and more representative of the lives of the incarcerated. Below, she describes how she came to the project through a source from a previous book, the solidarity of prisoners’ wives and a filmmaker whose “multitude of tones” inspires her.

When did you first get the idea to write this book?

It grew out of reporting I did for my first book, “Playing Dead,” which is about people who faked their own deaths or disappeared. One of the people I wrote about in that book is a man named Sam Israel III, a hedge fund manger who famously faked his own suicide by plunging off the Bear Mountain Bridge in New York in 2008.

Sam is now serving a sentence in federal prison, and most of our interviews took place through CorrLinks — which is a communications tool prisons use, sort of an email system that’s not connected to the internet — or over the phone. Through this series of interviews, and long after the book came out, Sam and I kept in touch and developed this almost daily correspondence, checking in and asking questions. We really developed a kind of friendship. Sam mentioned to me that sometimes his story is still featured on cable news shows, and every time it is, he gets letters from people, usually women, who are intrigued and want to meet him and get to know all about him. Of course, I’d heard about this phenomenon in passing — you read the National Enquirer stories about the women who wrote to Scott Peterson, or the serial killers who have groupies. That was my familiarity, and I think it’s a lot of people’s. So I thought, I want to talk to some of these people, I want to know about this. That was in 2016.

What’s the most surprising thing you learned while writing it?

So that’s where the book started, but where it ended up was getting to know many relationships which are not at all the stereotypical murder fetish we think about. These are everyday people who, for one reason or another — not because they were looking for love, but because they were volunteering as a chaplain at a prison or teaching a class there or just doing a good deed by writing to someone in prison — ended up falling in love with someone.

What I discovered that’s most surprising, among a particular group of prison wives, is that their husbands or boyfriends in prison almost become incidental to the whole experience. People who find themselves in these kinds of relationships often don’t have previous experience with the prison system. They haven’t had family members in prison, so this world is completely new. And in trying to figure out how to navigate it, and how to break the news to their families — who are often not very supportive of this decision — women end up coming together and forming their own networks and support groups, usually online. One of these groups, Strong Prison Wives and Families, has 60,000 members worldwide. These women end up standing up for themselves and really advocating for themselves. They go back to school, they start their own businesses. That was surprising, seeing these friendships and the enhanced self-esteem that allows women to make more of their lives than they had previously thought possible.

In what way is the book you wrote different from the book you set out to write?

I had no idea when I set out how longitudinal this project would become. I had this very glib notion that “prison wives” were a subculture unto themselves. I would be able to just enter, report for six months to a year, write for another six months, and that would be it. I was completely wrong.

People who find themselves in these arrangements are incredibly diverse, and I wanted to profile a handful of couples who reflect those differences. It took a long time to find the right couples. And if one is reporting on relationships, things need to happen, and things happen in real time. It was a lot of standing around and watching the ups and downs.

I didn’t realize how long reporting within the prison system would take. I would write to people and they wouldn’t get my letter for months; I would go to visit someone and visiting hours would be canceled at the last minute because of a lockdown. I reported for five years, and I got such a richer, deeper understanding of these relationships as a result.

What creative person (not a writer) has influenced you and your work?

I really admire the work of filmmaker Taika Waititi. I think he does such a great job celebrating the genius of everyday people. I love the multitude of tones he works in — funny, wrenching and tender — and I aspire to that in my own work.

Persuade someone to read “Love Lockdown” in 50 words or fewer.

There are 2.3 million people incarcerated in the United States, and millions experiencing incarceration alongside them. These are a few of their stories. They’re not what you expect, at all. They’re complex, and give a really interesting and underreported window onto the side effects of mass incarceration.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

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