The Pandemic Rush on Prison Weddings

The Pandemic Rush on Prison Weddings

The Pandemic Rush on Prison Weddings

The Pandemic Rush on Prison Weddings

Wedding officiants, for the public and for prisoners, say their calendars are packed and that couples need to plan a date six months or more out. “We’re going to do twice as much business, or more, in 2021 and 2022,” said Wendy Wortham, the founder of Texas Twins Events of Fort Worth, Texas, who has planned prison weddings.

On March 13, 2020, Texas imposed a statewide prison lockdown, to help stem the growing number of Covid cases in the state. Ms. Wortham spent her weekend informing and consoling 32 prison brides-to-be. “It was heartbreaking,” she said. “They were days away from their wedding, they had all their stuff packed, their travel booked, they’d gone through months of planning.” Now, as the rules relax, Ms. Wortham has 71 prison couples tentatively scheduled for 2021, with 161 more on her waiting list. It’s rare for prison brides to face the same problems as other brides, but in the case of canceled ceremonies, for once, both worlds are in sync.

“You have all these plans but you can’t move forward,” said Catherine Burris, an insurance agent in Arlington, Texas. Ms. Burris, 41, has been trying to wed her longtime partner, Jeffrey Gonzales, 43, since September 2020. Mr. Gonzales was incarcerated in 1998 for murder and is up for parole in 2027. The couple met in high school and reconnected in 2019. Initially, Ms. Burris was resistant to romance. “No one intends to get with someone in prison,” she said. But she couldn’t deny their connection, and when he proposed on Aug. 23, 2020, she accepted. She wrote her vows in anticipation. “You complete me and make me a better person. I will love you until I die.”

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Faced with millions of disappointed couples, several states issued executive orders that authorized virtual weddings — a ruling that carries over to the incarcerated. In Virginia, Byron Sichert, a nondenominational minister, has officiated 40 dial-in prison ceremonies since September. “People just figured we’re not going to wait this thing out, let’s get it done,” he said. He’s booked till late August. On March 20, 2021, Debbie Kalinowski, the owner of Wedding on Wheels, a mobile officiant service in Oaklyn, N.J., used Hudson County Correctional Facility’s video visitation app to marry a couple. Rev. Kalinowski, the bride, and two witnesses huddled around a cellphone in the bride’s home, in Red Bank, N.J., for the allotted 20-minute ceremony. It was Rev. Kalinowski’s first video wedding; despite New Jersey authorizing them in May 2020, only Hudson County corrections allows them. “They have the technology, but they discriminate against inmates,” Rev. Kalinowski said. “They’re treated like second-class citizens.”


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