Heather Swift, Contributing Writer

The internet is awash with anecdotes (many of them horror stories) of the pitfalls and ups and downs of being in an MWI (Met While Incarcerated) relationship. Having read through poorly-written, sometimes incoherent and often scatterbrained accounts of others’ MWI experiences on the various forums (prisontalk, prison families), I thought it would be useful to provide other MWIs or potential MWIs with a (hopefully) useful article about the benefits, the challenges and the dangers that accompany dating someone who is serving time.

While all Met While Incarcerated relationships are unconventional by society’s standards, the relationship that I have with my boyfriend is particularly unique because we met through Prisonwriters.com. In October of 2015, I read an article of his on Prisonwriters (he now has several published on the site) and it was so funny yet insightful that I wanted to get to know him better. For the first month (I had not been approved by the Department of Corrections for phone calls or visits yet), we exchanged several letters and he blessed me with custom poems. Never in my life had I been more excited to go to the mailbox to check for his letters, and I honestly believe that he felt that same excitement. From the moment the DOC approved me for phone calls and visits, we have been in constant contact (we have phone calls at least every other day and I make the eight hour journey to see him at least once a month). Sometimes the most satisfying words you will ever hear will be the automated voice telling you that “you have a call from an inmate” and the subsequent line “you may begin speaking now.” I have never cherished a kiss and a hug (the extent of physical intimacy that the Department of Corrections will allow) from anyone in my entire life more than my very first hug and kiss with my boyfriend on our first “date” in the visiting room on December 26, 2015.

However, a Met While Incarcerated relationship is not for the faint of heart, not for the faint of wallet, and an overactive imagination can dredge up inconvenient realities that if not dispelled through a demonstration of true commitment (by both), can ultimately destroy the relationship. I have provided a list (this is not exhaustive) of issues that are relevant, and almost necessary to ensuring that your relationship lasts beyond his/her end date:

1) Can you exert the extraordinary effort necessary to maintain the relationship without feeling resentful? An MWI relationship is so thrilling because there are so many hurdles to get to your loved one (waiting for visitation approval, making the hours long drive to the middle of nowhere), but after a while, if your loved one fails to recognize or even discounts your efforts, resentment is inevitable.

2) Can you endure a relationship that is financially one-sided? It is assumed and should be expected that MWI relationships will be one-sided financially (you will be paying for phone calls and travel expenses). Personally, I anticipated these costs from the outset and fortunately, I can afford to cover these costs but to many, 300 dollars or more a month (to maintain consistent phone contact and visits) is unfathomable.

3) Can you endure a relationship that is emotionally one-sided? It is important to understand that your loved one is encountering daily stressors that many of us on the outside couldn’t imagine. However, life on the outside is stressful as well. If your loved one spends the majority of your phone conversations and letters and even visits talking about their problems, plans, or beliefs – and your thoughts or feelings are ignored – you are definitely in a one-sided relationship and like most one-way streets, your relationship won’t last very long.

4) To what extent are you involved with your loved one’s family or friends? Unfortunately, upon intake, most who are incarcerated will rarely if ever receive contact from their friends and family and may even serve an entire sentence without hearing from anyone. However, just as in relationships on the outside, if it is apparent your loved one is in contact with their family and friends, and you have not been introduced to them (for whatever inane excuses your loved one professes); you probably never will be a part of their outside life. If you don’t mind feeling compartmentalized, then you will survive. Personally, the fact that my boyfriend carefully restricts and discourages any potential meeting with his family or friends makes me very uncertain of any sort of relationship with him beyond his release date.

5) Do you or your loved one have ulterior motives in pursuing an MWI relationship? There are many stories of inmates who purposely use pen pals or outsiders for monetary, emotional and sexual satisfaction. However, there are also many instances of pen pals and outsiders who use inmates for the temporary high that comes with the thrill of dating an inmate. After that high subsides, and reality sets in, a Met While Incarcerated relationship will entail A LOT of work on both ends. In my own experience, at the six month stage, many realities are becoming apparent to me (me potentially moving to another state to provide for him during his parole period, having enough money to provide for the period of his unemployment, us not having compatible lifestyles), and I’m still uncertain that in 16 months (his release date) from now, I will be capable of enduring these challenges.

6) Are you able to ignore the skepticism of others when you reveal that you’re in love with an inmate? Almost everyone in your life (family, friends, co-workers) will most certainly criticize your decision to pursue an MWI relationship. Some of their criticisms or warnings are founded (but rarely heeded) but it’s best (at least from my own experience) to rely upon your gut. While I have my doubts (and there are many), no two relationships of any kind, let alone MWI relationships are the same and your experience could be a uniquely positive one. Follow up on your instincts but do not allow doubt to completely engulf any potential for success.

7) Have you and your loved one been completely honest with each other about your life experiences and goals for the future? As our relationship progresses, I now understand that if we are going to make it past his end date, I must reveal some uncomfortable truths about myself.

8) Can you and your loved one endure the gossip of other inmates when you go to visit your loved one? On my very first “date” with my boyfriend, another visitor actually approached me to tell me that her husband (another inmate) told her all about our relationship backstory. Apparently, everyone on my boyfriend’s yard had heard about me (I am a former porn star) and likely had seen at least G-Rated pictures of me and had been anticipating my arrival. To make matters worse, my boyfriend apparently has an enemy on his yard that had also been in the visiting room and started a rumor that I must have been a man at one point. Having endured gossip and rumors for most of my adult life (I have been and always will be a woman), I can ignore most of the nonsense that is perpetuated by gossipers. However, your loved one is subjected to these rumors and accusations 24/7 until he or she is released and at some point enduring the rumors might be too much to overcome. It’s important to be understanding of how much your loved one must confront in order to be your loved one, but if he or she makes you feel that your presence is hindering his or her daily life, it’s probably best to put such a relationship on hold until circumstances are more conducive to allowing your relationship to grow.

9) Do you mind providing financial support to your loved one? On almost every forum dedicated to the topic of Met While Incarcerated relationships, the providing of financial assistance to an inmate is a definite red flag. Personally, I couldn’t disagree more. I send my boyfriend money because it makes me feel better knowing that he has enough to eat (his state does not provide lunch to inmates on the weekend) and that he can afford “luxuries” like coffee, which makes his sentence endurable and hopefully makes him feel like the great man that he is. He has never asked me for anything and has always been very grateful for what I have contributed. Of course, every loved one’s financial expectations are different and every outsider’s capacity to meet those expectations is different but be sure that you and your loved one are on the same page about your ability and willingness to contribute.

10) Can you imagine spending the rest of your life with your loved one? This is probably a question that should not have an immediate answer and at the six month mark myself, I still am legitimately unsure of what my answer is. For some, the most remarkable MWIs of all, their loved one will not have an “end date” (release). These “lifer MWIs” are so special and admirable because they are fully aware and prepared to love someone who will spend the rest of their life in the most challenging of circumstances. For me, I am not sure that after 07/07/17 (my boyfriend’s release date) that we will spend the rest of our lives together, but until then I will continue to love, hope and learn and become the best girlfriend he could want me to be.

If you have any comments or questions or just in need of moral support from another MWI, please feel free to contact me at 123heatherfeather@gmail.com