Why you should care
Jo Anne Hall turned her own life around as a wedding officiant in an unlikely place.
In 2013, Texas law changed to forbid marriage by proxy, effectively ending weddings for inmates. But two years later, the constitutionally protected right to marry was reinstated, allowing wedding ceremonies on Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) property. That’s the year Jo Anne Hall began performing prison marriages.
The first prison ceremony I performed was a referral from the Texas Inmate Families Association (TIFA). Ginger had been incarcerated for eight years on a 30-year sentence, but she and Adam had been writing back and forth. They’re still married. I actually had another referral a few weeks later, but I turned it over to another officiant because the prisoner was on the same unit that my son was on at the time, and we cannot go to the units where a loved one is incarcerated.
My youngest son spent eight years in and out of prison over a 15-year period, and when he came home in June of 2014, that’s when I found out about TIFA. It turned my life around. My eldest son has been in since 1995, and while he’s not completely innocent, I thank God that he didn’t do it. He was in the wrong place at the wrong time.
For the wedding, the Loved One is wearing all white, just like prisoners do day to day.
Prison’s hard on everyone involved, not just the one who’s incarcerated. Parents, grandparents, children, siblings — as well as the wives and girlfriends. It affects everyone. I’ve been married 43 years and I can’t imagine having my husband incarcerated.
The process takes anywhere from three weeks to three months, sometimes longer. If the person incarcerated doesn’t have a valid ID or birth certificate, they must get a copy of their TDCJ ID card, and that can take up to two months. The actual process to get married, that takes three to six weeks. They have to make sure neither person is already married and verify the officiant to make sure that person is on the approved officiants list. They’ll check the person getting married and make sure he or she is over 18 and on the visitation list.
You must be on the visitation list; you can’t get married if you’re not. Once those three sections are approved, then it goes to the warden for final approval and then to the chaplain to set a date. That’s the normal procedure. But each unit is different, and it gets crazy trying to remember who does what and how they do it.
We don’t meet the incarcerated person until the wedding day. If their intended is local, sometimes we meet them. But we usually only get to talk by text or phone, or via Facebook. The bride that I have coming in today for tomorrow’s wedding, it already feels like she’s my daughter. I get close to some of them. I’ve got some that message me months and months and even years later, asking for advice. It takes a strong person to stand by someone through all the heartache and turmoil prisoners go through.
The guidelines for the ceremony say no additional persons can attend: only the bride, groom and officiant. At least, that’s how I say it. TDCJ calls them offender, intended and officiant. But they’re still my bride and my groom, at least for a day. When I’m writing, I refer to them as Loved One and Intended. If the Loved One is eligible for contact visitation with a family member, then it will be a contact ceremony. If they’re not eligible for that, then it will be through glass or wire. That’s hard, not being able to hug or hold hands, and it’s hard to get good pictures as well. Most units do offer pictures for $3 each, apart from state jails. I had so many couples who didn’t know they could take pictures and didn’t have any quarters, so I was spending money on photos. Now my rates just include three pictures, and we stop and take photos of the bride outside in a park as well. I keep bouquets in my car for that.
For the wedding, the Loved One is wearing all white, just like prisoners do day to day. Normally we don’t wear all white into the unit because if there’s a riot or a commotion at any time it’s easier to get civilians out if they’re not dressed in white. For the wedding, the Intended wears pretty much anything that meets visitation guidelines. Sometimes brides have been allowed in wearing all white or long dresses, but since we don’t know what the unit’s going to say about the white dress I always advise that they wear a colored jacket or colored belt. Some units have tighter rules than others.
I try not to follow a script but instead make it more personal and meaningful. Couples can write their own vows, and many do. I’m not just the officiant. I’m also the bridesmaid, the wedding planner and hopefully a friend. There is no ring exchange.
When both my sons were incarcerated, it got the best of me. I made a Facebook post in early 2014: “I hate my life.” I had completely forgotten about this until it came up on my Facebook memories. After joining TIFA, I started caring about people and, before I knew it, everything changed. My life has turned a one-eighty. I’m happy with my life now. My younger son got out of prison in 2014 and is getting married in July — I will be performing his ceremony as well. We’re hopeful that my oldest will be home in October; in either case, he only has one year left until he’s free.
As told to Fiona Zublin.