Home Fashion Grateful for a Wedding in Prison

Grateful for a Wedding in Prison

By

Jenny Block

On the day Chelsea Moore got married, it had been six months since she last saw her fiancé, Christopher Blackwell.

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But now Ms. Moore, wearing a mask assigned to her, stood on a designated spot six feet from her soon-to-be husband. The room was empty save for a few chairs and tables and other seemingly storage-bound items haphazardly strewn about and a backdrop depicting a walking bridge in the woods in the early fall.

On Sept. 18, Ms. Moore and Mr. Blackwell were married in the visitors’ room at the Washington State Reformatory in the Monroe Correctional Complex, where he is a prisoner.

The only guests were guards and staff and two witnesses.

It was the furthest thing from the wedding of their dreams. Still, it was a day for which Ms. Moore and Mr. Blackwell were grateful.

Image
Credit…Megan Rose Donovan

Mr. Blackwell, 39, is serving two sentences. The first is for a robbery, for which he was convicted in 2003 and sentenced to eight years. The second is for the murder of 17-year-old Joshua May during a home invasion in 2003. Mr. Blackwell was convicted of first-degree murder and received a 38-year prison sentence in 2007. There is no parole in Washington State. He will be released in 2045.

He grew up in the Hilltop neighborhood of Tacoma, Wash., which was known for its gang violence in the late 1980s and is now being gentrified. He was incarcerated for the first time when he was 12 for stealing a car and would spend the next six years of his life in and out of jail.

While incarcerated, Mr. Blackwell has received a general associate degree from Seattle Central College and is several classes away from a bachelor’s degree in political science from Adams State University, which is in Alamosa, Colo. He writes about his experiences in prison and his work has appeared in BuzzFeed, the Marshall Project and Jewish Currents.

Ms. Moore, 32, who grew up in the wealthy community of Ojai, Calif., which she describes as “hippie town nestled in the mountains and known for being a geomagnetic vortex that attracts eccentrics and mystics,” is a Ph.D. candidate in political science at the University of Washington. She expects to complete her degree in the next couple of months. Ms. Moore also just started law school at the University of Washington where she is also an instructor and teaching assistant.

It is her aim, she said, to use her education to “do post-conviction review work for people with long sentences.”

The pair first crossed paths when Ms. Moore volunteered to teach a constitutional law civil liberties class at the prison in the summer of 2017. Mr. Blackwell was in the class.

Ms. Moore was still finishing her dissertation and interested in criminal justice work when she met his mother, Connie Palmersheim, in February 2019 at a community meeting in Seattle for those interested in sentence reform and parole legislation. The random connection seemed like kismet to Ms. Moore.

“She told me a bit about what Chris was up to and encouraged me to reach out to see if I could help at all,” Ms. Moore said in reference to his writing.

Credit…Megan Rose Donovan
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She and Mr. Blackwell began corresponding platonically that February at which time they were both separated from and in the process of divorcing their first spouses.

Their friendship grew through prison email, but, “really it was snail mail where we first started to fall in love,” she said. “We have binders and binders full of letters we’ve written to one another.”

Their connection grew over music, movies and books. “We’d send each other songs to listen to that remind us of each other. We sometimes do a book club. We can watch movies together over cable and will write back and forth about them.”

After they had begun corresponding, the pair were disheartened to learn there was a Washington Department of Corrections policy that did not allow former volunteers to be on a prisoner’s visitation list for three years after the date they stopped volunteering.

They set out to change the policy. “Through a lot of advocacy and persistence we were able to change the wait to a year instead of three years,” Ms. Moore said. The new policy went into effect in November 2019, though it has not been posted on the D.O.C. website.

Although neither can remember the precise moment they knew they were in love, both were sure that’s precisely what it was. Mr. Blackwell says knowing that Ms. Moore had read through his 360-plus-page juvenile record, and still wanted to be with him, made him sure she was the one.

There was no formal proposal, although she said he did “kind of” propose after writing a list of the 50 things he loved about her. They decided in January 2020 that they wanted to get married.

Megan Rose Donovan has been a close friend of Ms. Moore since 2008, when both were at Occidental College. She said what Ms. Moore needs now “is a friend to confide in and someone who won’t pass immediate judgment.”

“I also understood that Chelsea’s decision to marry Chris would likely create tension in some of her other relationships with friends and family,” she added. “So when she told me that they would be getting married I thought, “OK, pretty much everyone in this woman’s life is going to have a negative reaction to their relationship.”

That very same month, the couple began the long process of applying with the corrections department to get married.

But then the coronavirus pandemic struck and a difficult process became a near impossible one. No prison visitation was allowed — just three months after she had begun regularly visiting him — and virtual marriages were not legal in the State of Washington at the time.

Credit…Mark Miller

In May, they received and signed a marriage packet (which was separate from a marriage license) from the Department of Corrections. “The D.O.C. application requires me to say whether or not I’ve ever been abused and also that I restate all of Chris’s criminal history,” Ms. Moore said.

Because of the coronavirus, she felt it was urgent to speed the process. Should they fall ill, they would have no rights in regard to the other without being married.

“Incarcerated people are 550 percent more likely to get Covid-19 and 300 percent more likely to die of it,” she said.

On May 18, Ms. Moore reached out to the D.O.C., including Robert Herzog, the assistant secretary of the Washington State Department of Corrections Prisons Division, and the associate superintendent of the Monroe complex, John Padilla, to inquire about getting married. They were denied at every turn.

Emails were exchanged until mid-June. Her knowledge of the law and the system was invaluable during what she called a stressful process.

Ms. Moore soon learned that the Washington Supreme Court had already proclaimed video marriages were legal on May 29 but had not issued a public statement about it.

Finally, on Aug. 18, after more calls and emails, Mr. Herzog, who had been contacted by State Senator Joe Nguyen at Ms. Moore’s request, responded to Ms. Moore. He told her that the prison would allow a virtual ceremony.

The next day, much to her surprise, she was notified that the ceremony could be done in person after all.

The couple received a document that laid out the rules for the in-person ceremony including, “There will be no physical contact at any time between any parties, to include the bride and groom. Failure to follow this expectation will result in immediate termination of the marriage ceremony, an infraction for the incarcerated individual, and suspension/termination of the visitor’s visiting privileges.”

On the day of their wedding, Mr. Blackwell was taken to the visitation room, wearing his assigned prison uniform and a mask that he had beaded himself with the letters BLM. (Mr. Blackwell is a bead artist, and sold some of the works he has made while in prison to buy Ms. Moore’s engagement ring. “Chris worked hard to sell his beadwork and make enough money to buy me a ring, a yellow diamond ring that has two crescent moons and one full moon in it,” she said.)

Ms. Moore’s arrival to her wedding was delayed 40 minutes because of the prison’s entry process, which she described as humiliating. Ms. Moore wore a long, sheer, white dress that had a knee-length slip beneath it. After prison officials measured the hem length, and then the height of her heels, she was then told the dress showed too much cleavage. “So I had to zip up my jacket,” she said. “These are just some of the small indignities that someone who visits an incarcerated person has to suffer.”

When she did finally walk in the room, the bride and groom had tears in their eyes.

They were relieved.

“We were in constant fear of retribution,” Mr. Blackwell said, “of me being put in the hole, of the ceremony being stopped, of Chelsea losing her visitation rights.”

Ms. Donovan, who served as the one witness Ms. Moore was allowed to have in attendance, said the ceremony “was surreal.”

She stood more than six feet away from the couple as the bride read her vows.

“I know our life together will not be easy, but loving you is,” Ms. Moore said through her mask. “And I promise to love you without regards to convenience or circumstance. This marriage is not the first mountain we have had to move to be together and it will not be the last.”

Both said the ceremony, led by a prison chaplain, Brian Henry, passed in what felt like an instant. “We signed the papers, took a few photos, and then we were told the ceremony was over,” Mr. Blackwell said. “It makes me tear up now because I have no idea when we’ll see each other again.”

Mr. Blackwell’s mother said the years her son has spent behind bars have changed him.

Credit…Mark Miller

“Despite being surrounded by negativity every day, somehow he manages to keep a positive attitude,” she said. “It’s a blessing Chris found the woman of his dreams.”

Mr. Herzog of the D.O.C. said he was appreciative of the couple for working within the system.

“We are grateful to Ms. Moore and Mr. Blackwell for helping us work through the challenges to find a safe way to facilitate their marriage and we thank them for helping us define clear protocols to ensure all involved would be safe and secure,” he said via email. “We wish them a long and happy marriage.”

The couple are in the early stages of forming a nonprofit group, Look2Justice, which will work for comprehensive sentencing reform in Washington, especially for people who committed crimes as young adults.

“We have a clear passion for the same things,” Mr. Blackwell said by phone. “We care about people. We care about equality.”

In an email, Ms. Moore cites current brain science, which, she said, “tells us that an individual’s brain is not fully developed until around their 25th birthday. In Washington, people can’t even buy tobacco until they’re 21, yet in sentencing we treat anyone above the age of 18 the same. This legislation would provide people who received long sentences before the age of 25 to eventually be considered for parole.”

Mr. Blackwell has said that he believes his juvenile convictions prejudiced his sentencing.

Ms. Moore spoke to her family after the ceremony.

“They’re not excited, but they’re supportive, which is what I expected,” she said. “I’m so happy. I love him so immensely. I can’t picture a life without him and I don’t want to. Any life can turn difficult at any moment. I just followed my heart on this one.”

Above all else, Ms. Moore said she and Mr. Blackwell are grateful. Not only to be married but also because now other couples with an imprisoned partner will also have the opportunity to marry as well.

“Marriage is a human right,” Mr. Blackwell said. “To say someone can’t love is simply inhumane.”

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