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Prison Weddings: Love Faces Long Odds

TIMES STAFF WRITER

On the morning of her wedding, Monica Asencio is barefoot in her modest white dress and slowly rotating completely around.

This, however, is no dreamy bourree performed in front of her bedroom mirror while a clock nips off the last minutes before the most romantic ceremony of her life.

Asencio turns before a roomful of mostly uninterested strangers and a couple of very interested uniformed guards who coolly eye her for any contraband concealed in her wedding dress.

After she has come to a stop, she pads toward a special doorway. At California State Prison, Los Angeles County, the path to nuptial bliss passes through a metal detector. On the other side, a bride may reclaim the wedding shoes and purse and jewelry she has surrendered to be searched.

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And after Asencio is cleared, it’s Peryna Washington’s turn, and then Donna Terry’s. After Terry will follow four more resolute brides. On this particular Friday morning at the 4,200-inmate prison, seven marriages are to take place, a bumper crop.

Getting married is an act of hope. Prison marriages may be the most vivid demonstrations of this because they are undertaken in the most restrictive circumstances and hold for the husband and wife only diminished prospects for togetherness.

The prison wedding ritual itself is an exercise in circumscription. At Lancaster, the ceremony proceeds speedily to the point, usually in a tiny room. No more than 10 guests from outside the institution and two from inside may attend. The wedding banquet is likely to be cheesecake and coffee from vending machines in one of the large and very public visiting rooms.

Most restricted of all is the honeymoon--there is none. At the end of their wedding day, husband and wife part. She heads for the parking lot and the more breathable air beyond the electrified fence. He goes back to his cell.

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As husband and wife, they can qualify for a conjugal “family visit” in a few months if the newlywed prisoner is not in close custody--under constant and direct scrutiny--and stays clear of disciplinary action.

Despite all the restrictions, in the days just before their nuptials the seven Lancaster inmates and their fiancees expressed confidence that committing to one another will make life more orderly and human, not just in some unincarcerated future, but right away.

Prison marriages that come to public attention usually involve such notorious characters as death row inmate Richard Ramirez, the “Night Stalker,” and the often unlikely women who came to know them after they were jailed. The seven marriages at Lancaster are probably more typical. In each case, the bride knew the groom before he was incarcerated; in three cases, she already had at least one child with him.

That, however, did not alter the fact that the Lancaster women had agreed to bind themselves to men essentially unavailable to participate in family life for a while. None of their bridegrooms can be released for more than two years; one will be in prison until at least 2014.

No studies have tracked how marriages begun in prison fare over time. Among prison psychologists, it’s widely accepted that marriages between people who had close relationships beforehand are more likely to endure than those between people who met while one was behind bars.

“The marriages that begin in any situation where the woman is sort of aware of the person the inmate is prior to incarceration tend to last,” said Ronald Browne, a former prison psychologist at the U.S. penitentiary in Lompoc and now in private practice in Santa Maria.

James Janik, for 13 years a psychologist at Cook County Jail in Chicago, said such marriages have a better track record “because they’ve already gone through the pull and tug of who does what in the relationship, and resolved that kind of thing.”

The day before her wedding, 32-year-old Asencio pondered her decision to marry Angel Lozano. Lozano, 34, the father of Asencio’s young daughter, has been in and out of lockups since his teenage gang years for such offenses as driving with a suspended license and burglary, his latest conviction. His earliest date of release is December 1998. Asencio, who lives with her parents in Stanton while attending adult education classes in Garden Grove, said she had no misgivings about the marriage.

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“He can change his life,” she said. “By marrying him, I’m showing that I love him and his daughter loves him and that I haven’t given up hope in him. He has to meet me halfway. I believe he’s serious, because, him getting married--it’s like it raining in the summertime.”

Donna Terry, who was about to wed inmate Ray Henderson, saw marriage as a means of solidifying the bond between them. Henderson, 45, must serve at least six more years of a drug possession sentence. He has a 10-year-old daughter and a 2-year-old son with Terry, a nurse’s assistant who plans to train as a licensed vocational nurse.

“He has a certain amount of time to do, and he needs my support, and I need his support,” said Terry, a 35-year-old Los Angeles resident. “I have things I want to do in my life, and getting married strengthens me to do them. This finalizes things.”

Abdul-Wahal Omeira, a Muslim chaplain at the Lancaster prison, suggested that prison marriages might even be superior to others.

“It’s a little more elevated behind the walls,” he said. “A bride coming in to give herself to an inmate knows she can’t be with him 24 hours a day, and she knows her conjugal visits can be affected by things far beyond her control. These people have to have a lot of devotion to one another.”

The Lancaster inmates emphasized that getting married would benefit them immediately, on the inside of the prison fence. It would relieve some of the psychological pressure of prison life, they said. It would calm and focus them, and make it easier to stay out of trouble.

“It changes the way you think,” said Van McGowen, 37, who was imprisoned for second-degree murder and cannot be paroled until 2005. “I’ve been in almost 17 years and surviving has been all about thinking of me. Now I’ll have to consider my wife and her needs. My thing is companionship--having somebody to go through this with.”

Twenty-three-year-old Keshon Cooper, serving a second-degree murder sentence until at least 2004, put it more simply. “My chances of being released,” he said, “would be slim and none without this motivation.”

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Under state law, any unmarried, mentally competent prison inmate has the right to wed. How many have done so isn’t known.

The California Department of Corrections keeps no systemwide statistics on such marriages. The only known survey, conducted informally a decade ago when the state’s inmate population was 59,000, yielded 937 such weddings. Since then, the inmate population has swelled to 143,000.

At Lancaster, which houses about 3% of the state’s inmates, weddings are reserved for the second, and sometimes the fourth, Friday of each month. Administrators say about 60 weddings take place each year. If that rate applies consistently throughout the system, about 1,800 California inmates a year would marry.

Although virtually any inmate may wed, eligibility for family visits is restricted to those who are in work or training programs and have avoided disciplinary problems. Death row inmates and prisoners in close custody are ineligible.

Family visits last 48 hours. Inmates, along with any combination of their children, parents, siblings, grandparents and legal spouses, are permitted to occupy small, furnished cottages or house trailers inside the prisons during that time.

The visits are “a management tool, an incentive for inmates to function appropriately in prison,” according to department spokeswoman Christine May. At Lancaster, the interval between them is, on average, two months.

Pending new state regulations will tighten eligibility, however. They will ban family visits for inmates serving life sentences without possibility of parole, lifers who don’t have parole dates, most sex offenders, including rapists and child molesters, and inmates convicted of dealing drugs in prison.

In the spacious waiting room that serves the prison’s A Yard, Asencio and her fiance’s parents, Manuela and Baltazar Lozano of Whittier, sip coffee while 3-year-old Salina plays with a bag of M&Ms.;

Asencio is calm despite the fact that her parents do not know she has come here today to get married. She thinks they would have tried to talk her out of it, or maybe even forbid it. She is old enough, she has told herself, to make her own decisions. In any case, her marriage to Angel soon will be fact.

Getting married had been his idea. Two years ago, he had been in jail in Santa Ana, awaiting trial on the burglary charge, and had arranged for his mother to buy an engagement ring. Then, when Asencio came to see him and they were in the visitors room, Lozano got up his nerve.

“Monica,” he said, “I have a surprise and I think it’s good news and I hope you say yes.”

His proposal was completely unexpected. Asencio, as she always did when sentiment thickened the air around her, burst into tears.

Although Asencio may be calm now, Manuela Lozano is not. “It’s like she’s the one who’s getting married,” Asencio says.

Her future mother-in-law nods. “I cannot sleep all night,” she says. “I went to the store to buy me a blouse for the wedding and I was so nervous I walked the mall five hours and couldn’t find one. So I go home and put on the same old blouse.”

She has come, she says, to give a mother’s blessing, one she has composed herself, to her son on his wedding day.

“My son has never been happy,” she says, swallowing hard, her eyes moistening. “He says he has nothing of his own. Other people have a wife, a home, children. Now he says, ‘Look at me. I’m getting old.’ ”

Angel Lozano arrives. He is squarely built, like his father. His dark hair is slicked back and his prison-issue chambray shirt is buttoned all the way to his throat. He kisses Asencio and heartily hugs his parents.

He sits next to his daughter and puckers his lips and leans toward her. “Give kiss . . . give kiss,” he entreats. But the little girl leans shyly away.

At the far end of the waiting room, final preparations have been completed for the wedding of Henderson and Terry, the first of the day. The Rev. Eldon Clendening, an Independent Assemblies of God minister who has conducted prison marriages for 43 years, summons the couple and their seven guests into a small, windowed cubicle, normally used for inmate consultations with lawyers. Today it will function as wedding chapel.

Meanwhile, prison office assistant Tracy Parilla, who is also a sworn deputy county clerk, sits down with Asencio and Lozano. She has them raise their hands and swear that the information on their marriage license application is true, and issues the license.

Then, it is time.

Clendening, fingering a worn book of prayers, ushers the Lozano party into the 7-by-10-foot room, and arrays them perpendicularly to the doorway. Under prison rules, the groom may not stand with his back to the guards watching from the larger room beyond.

Salina now is propped on her father’s arm, holding onto his neck. She sucks on a plastic bottle of orange juice and watches the minister with keen interest.

When God wished to describe the beauty and unity and completeness of the Church, he chose to picture a devoted bridegroom with his glowing bride, the clergyman intones. We gather to share in the joy . . . Will you take this woman . . . Will you take this man . . . With this ring . . . What therefore God has joined . . .

In less than five minutes, it is over.

The newlyweds kiss and are hugged by the elder Lozanos. Manuela places a hand on her son’s chest and inclines her head. In Spanish, she prays, “In the name of Christ I come to give you this blessing and to ask that from this moment the angels be with you so you can be a good husband and a good father.”

By now, Clendening has hurried off to catch the electric golf cart that will ferry him to yards C and D, where he will conduct nuptials for the other inmates.

Back at the Lozanos’ table in the big room, the tension and excitement have vanished. The sights and sounds surrounding the family have resolved themselves into those of an ordinary visiting day.

“See,” Manuela Lozano explains, “when the mothers bless the sons, all the marriages will keep going. They will last.”

Angel Lozano looks at his hands, which are folded on the table. Monica Lozano, nee Asencio, has placed a wifely hand over them. “This is all new for me. Kind of like starting over,” he says. He looks up with a faint smile on his face. “Can I go home now?”


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