In addition to being a time-honored institution, marriage has been a hard-won civil right in America. So can inmates in jail or prison take part in the legal sanctity of marriage?
Good news for jail birds and love birds: In most cases, it is possible for prisoners to legally marry their spouses -- even if they're serving life sentences.
So before you start asking the prison commissary if it carries wedding invitations, check out these legal facts about marriage behind bars:
Right to Marry Still Afforded to Inmates
The Supreme Court recognized that marriage was a fundamental right in Loving v. Virginia, but it also recognized in a later case that even prisoners have that fundamental right.
In Turner v. Safley in 1987, the High Court determined that a regulation that prevented inmates from marrying without the permission of the warden violated those inmates' fundamental rights to marry. Following that case, prisons have allowed inmates to marry -- even Charles Manson was able to obtain a marriage license.
State Gay Marriage Rules Still Apply
While it may seem somewhat absurd that prisoners can marry the spouses of their choosing but not law-abiding same-sex couples, that is the case in many states where gay marriage is illegal. In the states where same-sex marriage is legal, inmates may obtain a marriage license for their spouses, regardless of their gender. In states which prohibit gay marriage, prisoners hoping to get married may need to confirm to the penal institution that their chosen partners are of the opposite sex in order to legally wed.
This should mean that gay inmates can marry each other, but these circumstances are fairly untested.
Conjugal Visits Are Becoming a Thing of the Past
On a related note, there's a trend that married inmates (and their spouses) may want to know about: It seems the practice of allowing married couples time to have intimate relations while one spouse is incarcerated, generally called conjugal visits, is quickly becoming obsolete.
In April, Mississippi ended its decades-long practice of conjugal visits, leaving New Mexico, Washington state, California, and New York as the only states which still allow intimate time for married inmates. New Mexico threatened to discontinue its conjugal visit policy earlier this year, but there has been some pushback from prison spouses.
Unlike the right to marry, conjugal visits are a privilege that may be granted or taken away based on good behavior or even the severity of an inmate's sentence.
If you or your spouse is having trouble marrying behind bars, contact a civil rights attorney today.