Finding love behind bars may sound different than you think

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

“Most of us have heard of this phenomenon: people (usually women) chasing criminals (usually men, always famous) whom they learned about in the nightly news,” Greenwood writes. “The higher the profile of the perpetrator, the more Heloise for Abelard.” But researching “Love Lockdown” Greenwood interviewed people and learned about relationships that were less amorous and more representative of life in captivity. Below, she explains how she got into the project through a source from a previous book, the solidarity of prisoners’ wives and a filmmaker whose “too many vocals” inspire her.

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

It evolved from the reporting I did for my first book, “Playing Dead” Which is about people who faked their death or disappeared. One of the people I wrote about in that book is a man named Sam Israel III, a hedge fund manager who pretended to commit suicide by falling 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 via CorrLinks—a communication tool that the prison uses, much like an email system that isn’t 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 friendship of sorts. Sam told me that sometimes his story is still shown on cable news shows, and every so often he gets letters from people, usually women, who are curious and want to meet him and know everything about him. Huh. Of course, I may have heard about this phenomenon in passing—you read National Enquirer stories about women who wrote Scott Peterson, or serial killers who have groups. He was an acquaintance of mine, and I think it belongs to a lot of people. So I thought, I want to talk to some of these people, I want to know about it. That was in 2016.

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

So that’s where the book began, but where it ended, there were a number of relationships to be explored that, in our view, aren’t at all stereotypical murder fetish. These are ordinary people who, for one reason or another – not because they were looking for love, but because they were volunteering as a pastor in prison or teaching a class there or Were doing a good deed by writing to someone in prison – ended up falling in love with someone.

credit…ty cole

Most surprising of what I found among a particular group of prison wives is that their husbands or lovers in prison become incidental to almost the entire experience. People who find themselves in these types of relationships often have no previous experience of the prison system. His family members were not in jail, so this world is completely new. And in trying to figure out how to navigate this, and how to broadcast the news to their families—who often don’t quite support the decision—women eventually come together and form their own networks and support groups. Manufactures, usually online. One of these groups, Strong Prison Wives and Families, has 60,000 members worldwide. These women stand up for themselves in the end and really advocate for themselves. They go back to school, they start their own business. It was surprising, seeing these friendships and the heightened self-esteem that allows women to live their lives more than ever before.

How is the book you wrote different from the one you decided to write?

I had no idea when I determined how long this project would be. I had this ludicrous notion that “prison wives” were a subculture in their own right. I’ll just be able to log in, report for six months to a year, and write for six months, and that’s it. I was completely wrong.

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

I didn’t know how long reporting would take within the prison system. I used to write to people and they didn’t get my letter for months; I used to visit someone and the last minute visit was canceled due to the lockdown. I reported for five years, and I had such a rich, deep understanding of these relationships as a result.

Which creative person (not the author) has influenced you and your work?

I really admire the work of the filmmaker Taika Waititi. I think he does such a great job celebrating the genius of ordinary people. I love the multitude of vocals he employs – witty, gruff and gentle – and I aspire to that in my work.

Convince someone to read “Love Lockdown” in 50 words or less.

There are 2.3 million people in captivity in the United States, and millions more are experiencing their incarceration. These are some of his stories. They are not what you expect. They are complex, and give a really interesting and under-reported window on the side effects of mass incarceration.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

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