On a crisp February morning, Eshawn Page drops off her 13-year-old son, Amir, at school, gets into her silver Volkswagen and begins her biweekly 45-minute commute to visit her husband. Driving past snow-dusted mountains, Page, an optimistic woman with a perfectly symmetrical face and high cheekbones, is in a cheerful mood. Just the day before, two men were exonerated for three murders they did not commit. The men, Antonio Yarbough and Sharrif Wilson, had spent more than two decades in prison. Page’s husband, Jermaine Page, is in year 18 of a life sentence for a murder he similarly denies committing. “They locked up my husband based on a coerced confession and untrustworthy witnesses, just like they locked up those men,” says Eshawn as she approaches Shawangunk Correctional Facility, an all-male maximum-security prison. Eshawn’s family, like so many others entangled in New York’s criminal-justice system, is optimistic that the new Brooklyn district attorney, Kenneth Thompson, will deliver on his campaign promise to revisit convictions marred by prosecutorial and police misconduct in the 1980s and 1990s. The two recent exonerations give Eshawn hope that her prayers will finally be answered.
Eshawn pulls into the parking lot of the prison, which is located on a barren stretch of land just west of the Hudson River in Ulster County, N.Y. She walks up to a door marked “visitors” and enters a foyer that resembles a post office, save for signs on the walls instructing visitors, in all capitals: “no cell phones” and “no weapons.” A woman recognizes Eshawn and waves to her; they inquire about their husbands as if passing each other in a grocery-store aisle.
Eshawn is given a key for a locker, where she deposits her coat. She’s already stashed her valuables in her car trunk, knowing she can’t take anything into the prison, not even a piece of paper or a pen. Another visitor walks by and jokes, “If you need someone to watch your money when you go for the visit, just let me know.”
Eshawn laughs and begins filling out the required forms — name of inmate, prisoner ID number, visitor’s car model, plate number, relationship to prisoner and “reason for visit.” A mother and her two children enter the facility, approach the guard and go through the same silent ritual.
After completing the forms, Eshawn removes her neon pink Nikes and large hoop earrings, then walks through a metal detector as if boarding a flight. On the other side, she collects her belongings and expectantly holds out the back of her hand for a guard, who stamps it with a serial number in invisible ink. He is courteous and helpful. “Different guards treat you differently,” she said earlier. “Some are nice, but others are mean and will give you trouble.”
After receiving her stamp, she stands in front of a formidable metal door that separates the prison’s entrance from its interior. The guard buzzes the door open, and Eshawn enters a cubicle-size room, where she encounters another door. She flashes her hand under a scanner, which reads the invisible ink, and the next door opens. Walking deeper into the prison labyrinth, she repeats this process until she reaches the final door before the visiting floor.
The floor, as it’s called, is a large rectangular room with a half-pentagon table at one end and several smaller tables on each side. At the entrance, a guard instructs Eshawn to scan her hand again and then write down her information on a clipboard. Next to the guard are several packs of playing cards and sets of dominoes, but she is not interested in diversions. She walks past a set of vending machines to one of the smaller tables, where she takes a seat and waits for her husband. To the right, a man with dreadlocks holds hands with another visitor and smiles each time she speaks. At the table behind Eshawn, a mother and son animatedly converse with an inmate. To the left is a door leading to the prison courtyard, where, on warmer days, inmates can sit with their loved ones at picnic tables. It’s the same courtyard where Eshawn and Jermaine became engaged six years earlier. “Jermaine got down on his knees, and all the other prisoners started clapping and cheering,” she says.
The moment was bittersweet, though. At first she didn’t know whether to accept Jermaine’s offer. “My family and friends were like, ‘Are you kidding me? You’re going to marry someone who’s in prison for life?’” she says. “But my father told me, if I truly love this man and I can be content, then I should go through with my decision and live with the consequences.”
Eshawn and Jermaine were one of 20 couples who married on March 26, 2009, at Elmira Correctional Facility, in upstate New York. None of their family members chose to attend the ceremony. The bride wore a golden gown, and the groom wore prison-issued sneakers. They were allowed to pose for 10 photos as mementos.
Eshawn and Jermaine met in the spring of 1996. They were inseparable from the beginning. “I immediately liked him,” she says. “He was nice, well-mannered and a humorous person.” They spent late nights at Applebee’s chatting about their upbringings, past relationships and hopes for the future. “We talked so much, it would be daylight before we knew it.” She and Jermaine learned they had a lot in common: Both grew up in the crime-riddled East New York section of Brooklyn, both came from single-parent households, and both had a rebellious streak as children. “I’d never felt anything like the way I felt about Jermaine.”
Then a month and half later, the tall man with a broad smile went missing. Shortly afterward, Eshawn was approached by an investigator, who told her Jermaine was a suspect in a recent murder.
“I was just shocked,” Eshawn recalls. “I just couldn’t believe this was the same person.” She didn’t think she would ever see Jermaine again, but his name kept popping up in conversations, and her mind kept drifting back to the evenings they spent together. It wasn’t until 2001 that she summoned the nerve to write Jermaine a letter in prison, where he’d been incarcerated for five years. “I just wanted to understand what happened. I never realized you could be sucked up into the prison vacuum in a blink of an eye.” They began corresponding frequently and, eventually, talking on the phone. “The more I spoke with him, the more it felt like I had known him forever.” By this time, she had a child from a previous relationship, and as a single mom, she appreciated having another adult she could speak to about her life.
Initially, Eshawn doubted Jermaine’s claims of innocence, so they began talking more about his case. Jermaine ended each conversation the same way: “You should read the court transcripts and see for yourself.” Eventually, she took him up on his suggestion.
She pored over the court documents, trying to piece together what had happened the night Jermaine was accused of brutally ending another man’s life. “I wanted to see for myself, and the more I learned, the more shocked I grew,” says Eshawn. In the files, she says, she found conflicting witness testimonies and missing DNA reports. “I just couldn’t believe they would throw away an innocent man.”
Over the years, she has read thousands of pages of court transcripts, spoken to countless lawyers and solicited the help of numerous organizations. She says the details of Jermaine’s case are particularly complicated because he faced the possibility of becoming the first person to receive the death penalty under a 1995 law that restored capital punishment in New York state. (The law was found unconstitutional by the State Court of Appeals in 2004.)
The way Eshawn and the prosecutors describe Jermaine’s case differs greatly, of course. But both sides agree Jermaine got into a fight over a game of dice with a man named Marvin McIntosh in East New York in 1996. A teenage cousin of Jermaine’s and a friend of the cousin’s were among those at the scene. In Eshawn’s version of events, the two younger boys looked up to 22-year-old Jermaine and wanted to help him win the fight, so one of them pulled out a gun and shot McIntosh. The prosecutors argued that Jermaine was the triggerman. The three fled the scene but were eventually caught. According to Eshawn, the tough-on-crime prosecutor decided to peg the murder on Jermaine because the other two suspects were juveniles, ineligible for the death penalty. Eshawn says one of the teens eventually confessed to the crime, but the prosecutors doggedly pursued Jermaine and found a witness to testify against him — a witness whom Eshawn characterizes as a “crack addict with several outstanding warrants who gave a dozen conflicting accounts of what happened.”
She says Jermaine initially insisted on his innocence but eventually “was coerced into accepting” a plea deal, agreeing to life in prison without the possibility of parole in exchange for giving up his right to appeal the conviction.
Eshawn has become Jermaine’s staunchest defender and most committed advocate. The two have reached out to the Innocence Project and the Jeffrey Deskovic Foundation for Justice, among other organizations. But such groups are inundated with similar requests, Eshawn says, and often take years to respond. Lawyers typically require $1,000 to $5,000 just to review court transcripts. Eshawn, who is studying social work at a community college, says she doesn’t even have the $350 in her bank account necessary to photocopy the court transcripts to send to an attorney. “It’s not always easy, but I keep up the faith,” she says. A former customer-call-center worker, she laughs when asked if she has considered law school. “I don’t believe in the law, but I do believe in Jermaine’s case, so I’m just going to keep fighting for him.” Her husband is “no saint,” she says, but she no longer doubts his innocence.
Eshawn is part of a growing but largely invisible group: the spouses of the long-term incarcerated. For them, Valentine’s Day is just another milestone marking the time they have lost as a couple. “My husband isn’t the only one who is serving a sentence,” she says. “As long as Jermaine remains behind bars, we’re both doing time.”
The United States is the world’s leader in incarceration, with 2.2 million people currently in the nation’s prisons and jails. Experts estimate that a quarter of all inmates in state prisons are married, and even more are in intimate or co-parenting relationships.
Partners of the long-term incarcerated effectively do time on the other side of the prison bars: They do time by picking up the slack at home, clocking double shifts at work and explaining parental absences to their children. Some, like Eshawn, also solicit legal opinions and prepare endless court documents. For many Americans removed from the prison system, the idea of anyone’s choosing to stay in such a difficult relationship is confounding. Eshawn says, “I remain with Jermaine because he’s shown me more love while in prison than anyone else has outside prison.”
Yet she acknowledges the situation is difficult, that sometimes she wants to throw up her hands and call it quits. “My advice to anyone else who finds themselves in this situation,” she jokes, “is to run!”
She and other prison spouses say they are frustrated by the enormousness of the challenges and the dearth of resources to help manage their situation. An average day for Eshawn involves juggling her college coursework; raising her son, who is autistic; and petitioning lawyers for their services. Thanks to financial aid, her tuition is manageable, but she lives on a tight budget, surviving with the help of family. For a time, Jermaine had a job inside the prison doing data entry for the Department of Transportation. That allowed him to send a check every two weeks that covered a couple of their bills. When the contract with the prison ended, Jermaine took a job in the prison kitchen and sent a more modest check. “A lot of the other prisoners ask their wives for money, but my husband doesn’t ask for anything,” says Eshawn. “He prefers to make sure I’m doing all right.”
The high cost of prison phone calls, visits, canteens, photos and even vending machines exacerbates couples’ financial burdens, Eshawn and others say. “Everything is so expensive!” she says. She says the Uncle Ben’s microwavable rice in the prison commissary costs $5, five times more than on the outside. “I told my husband, ‘We are not eating any rice in here.’”
Eshawn considers herself lucky, though, since she no longer has to travel from South Carolina, where she lived until recently. She visited her husband every 90 days, and each trip cost $500 to $600. “Now I get to see Jermaine much more often, and I don’t have to deal with the costly trip,” she says.
Some spouses say the Department of Corrections should institute a comprehensive program to assist them. “When my husband was imprisoned, nobody came to help me,” says Ann Edenfield Sweet, who wrote about her experience as a prison wife in a book, “Family Arrested: How to Survive the Incarceration of a Loved One.” “I used to work as a flight attendant, so I compare the situation to being tossed out of a plane.”
Her husband was arrested in the 1980s for conspiracy to import drugs and was given a 15-year sentence, leaving Sweet to provide for their young family. “Overnight, I became penniless, with a $3.5 million IRS lien, and had four little boys and a baby on oxygen and no insurance,” she says. With the family breadwinner gone, she says, she had to quickly learn to stretch a dollar. One of the worst parts of her husband’s imprisonment, she adds, was the ostracism she experienced. “All of sudden, all our fancy neighbors that lived in the big,
exclusive part of town disappeared, and I was asked to not be the Cub Scout leader.”
The former homecoming queen, cheerleader and student council president was suddenly reduced to one label: the prisoner’s wife. That stigma, she and others say, is the most difficult part of being a prisoner’s spouse.
In 1995, Sweet started a support group for prisoners’ family members, Wings Ministry, which is now called Wings for Life International. The organization, which operates in 17 states, brings together inmates and their families for group dinners and conversations as well as holiday parties and skits.
Sweet says children of prisoners are seven times more likely to become incarcerated themselves; thus much of the group’s focus is on creating a positive environment for them and intervening early. “If a pencil goes missing in school, the other students will often point at a kid and say, ‘He has a dad in prison. He must’ve stolen it!’” she says. “So we teach children how to deal with bullying. Yet I know from my own experience that programs that give services just to children and not their primary caregiver don’t work. When my husband was sent to prison, I needed help and support even more than my children, because I was the one who was raising them, after all.”
Reesy Floyd-Thompson experienced feelings of loneliness and depression when her husband was sentenced to 12½ to 25 years in prison for third-degree murder. “I was three years into my husband’s incarceration and in a total fog,” she says.
Since she works in marketing, she is accustomed to doing intensive research. “I found a lot of information for inmates,” she says, “but I couldn’t find any information for how spouses should manage when their loved one is locked up.”
In 2009 she founded the website Prisoners’ Wives, Girlfriends and Partners to provide a sense of community and solidarity for the loved ones of inmates. The response was overwhelming, she says. “I kept hearing from people who said they thought they were alone.”
Floyd-Thompson says she has come to recognize that the first people who need to let go of stereotypes are often the women themselves. “I held more shame and judgment for myself than the people around me did,” she recalls. She has largely overcome those feelings, she says, but still doesn’t advocate that people announce their husbands are incarcerated. “Everyone needs to do what feels right for them, because there can be real consequences if you tell the wrong person. I know of people who’ve been evicted and lost their jobs.” While such discrimination against prisoners’ families is largely illegal, it’s not uncommon, Floyd-Thompson says.
Eshawn’s face lights up as her husband enters the visiting room. He is a tall, lean man in his 40s with a buzz cut, wearing a velvety red shirt and the same dull green work pants worn by all the inmates. On weekends the two hold their visitations in a private adjoining room known as the honor room — a reward for Jermaine’s good conduct. Today, a Friday, they meet in the main visitation room and hug over the table, since they’re not allowed to sit on the same side. They immediately discuss the recent exonerations, pausing to smile and nod while recounting the particulars of each case. “Those men were almost wrongfully put in the grave,” says Jermaine. “I really feel like 2014 is going to be a big year, a year we see some changes.”
When the conversation turns to their relationship, Jermaine describes Eshawn’s love for him in terms of spiritual sustenance: “I read the Scriptures, and it says, ‘Love endures,’ and I can say that’s true in my experience.”
In many ways, Eshawn is Jermaine’s lifeline to the external world and his best hope for stepping foot in that world again. “I love this lady because she learned the basis of my case and she learned the basis of the law,” he says. “For someone to do that on the outside, that’s unique.”
Over the years, he has lost most of his family, including his mother, with whom he was very close, but Eshawn has been a constant. “Most guys in here have nowhere as much sanity as I have, thanks to my wife.”
Jermaine and Eshawn say maintaining a relationship within the prison guidelines is challenging. “They do everything they can to break up a family in here,” he says. “There’s a lot of harassment over following protocol. They make it so hard for the families that loved ones give up, and then the prisoner is lost in the system.” While many of their difficulties are unique to their situation, some of their challenges mirror those faced by all couples. Jermaine says he wants to talk through arguments until everything is settled, whereas Eshawn just hopes problems will disappear on their own. He voices frustration that she gets “emotional” for reasons indiscernible to him. For her part, she says he is sometimes overbearing, overprotective and unrealistic. “He doesn’t have a sense of the outside world and how things actually work,” she says. When they’re angry with each other, they’ve been known to empty their prepaid phone account for 30 minutes in one call, but they’ve managed to stay together by remaining focused on what they love about each other.
They write lengthy letters on 8.5-by-11-inch paper several times a month and call twice a day. He doesn’t have email access. Every 45 to 60 days, they are allowed a family visit, also known as a conjugal visit. Those last for 48 hours in a trailer on the prison grounds. “We dance and cook together,” she says. “Jermaine is a fantastic cook.” They also spend a lot of time collaborating on projects, which mainly focus on helping children with autism. Eshawn doesn’t regularly take their son, Amir (whom Jermaine adopted when they married), to the prison, because his autism makes it difficult for him to sit still for extended periods. Today, Jermaine and Eshawn discuss a pamphlet they’re designing to educate parents and children about how to keep children with autism safe. Eshawn is buoyed by recent news that the U.S. Department of Justice will fund voluntary tracking devices for children with autism. The initiative is called Avonte’s law, which is named after Avonte Oquendo, a 14-year-old autistic boy who went missing earlier this year and was later found dead in the New York’s East River. “We put a lot of pressure on each other to be productive,” says Eshawn. One of their long-term dreams is to buy and renovate an abandoned building to create a home for at-risk youth. “With kids, you first have to tap into their pain,” says Jermaine. “You have to know where they’re coming from before they listen to you.”
They believe a lot of family dysfunction and youth incarceration stems from not having both parents involved in a child’s upbringing. Perhaps that’s why the atmosphere grows tense when the conversation turns to Jermaine’s two children from a previous relationship. He looks visibly pained when reflecting on the time he’s lost with his 23-year-old son and 21-year-old daughter. The children visit less often than he would like. Both live in Brooklyn and grew up largely without their father. “When I get out, it will be better,” says Jermaine. “Just being physically present will help.”
Eshawn interjects, saying, “He can’t make up for lost time, and (his daughter), being a girl, especially resents that he’s not there.” She adds softly, “I know how she feels, because my dad wasn’t there very much either.” The comment creates an uncomfortable silence. When asked if it’s fair for his children to hold him responsible for his situation, Jermaine answers without hesitation. “Of course. I hold myself responsible,” he says. “Just because I didn’t murder anyone doesn’t mean I didn’t make some foolish decisions. Maybe it was lack of guidance, but they were still my decisions.”
Both Jermaine and Eshawn recognize the dangers of dwelling too much on the past. “I can’t hold on to bitterness. You just have to learn to live without regrets,” he says. “The past wasn’t me. If I lived with all that pain and hurt, I wouldn’t be here today.”
Instead, he tries to focus on the future, even though he’s slated to spend his life behind bars. “If you don’t set out to go somewhere, you’ll end up nowhere,” he says. Still, he admits that he has long experienced bouts of depression. To lift his spirits, he often calls home to speak with his adopted son. “Amir always picks me up. He has a whole lot of energy, and he’s very smart. You can learn a lot from him.”
Eshawn says Jermaine has been a wonderful father to Amir. She says, “They talk a lot on the phone, and Amir really listens to his dad. He laughs and says, ‘I’m happy! I’m happy!’ whenever Jermaine calls.”
For Jermaine, a major breakthrough came shortly after he was imprisoned. He says an elderly inmate took him aside and introduced him to books he never knew existed. “At first I thought the guy wanted me to fight, but actually he just wanted me to read Frantz Fanon’s ‘Wretched or the Earth,’” recalls Jermaine. “When I started reading, my life changed, and I saw everything differently.” Today he spends most of his day meditating, reading or studying for a paralegal course he is taking. He just finished reading “No Excuse! Incorporating Core Values, Accountability and Balance Into Your Life and Career” by Jay Rifenbary. Jermaine says one of the unexpected consequences of his imprisonment is that it led him to an intellectual world he wouldn’t have known otherwise. “In school, I didn’t want to read. If I had read those books, I would’ve been Huey P. Newton today,” he says with a laugh, referring to the political and urban activist who co-founded the Black Panther Party in 1966.
Eshawn and Jermaine don’t know if they’ll ever spend a day together beyond the prison grounds, but they both enjoy planning for that possibility. “I think our relationship will get stronger,” he predicts. “It will really allow us to be a married couple, go out and have fun and celebrate spontaneously. No guards overseeing and putting time restraints.” He adds that he would really love to see LeBron James play someday, which leads Eshawn to retort, “I’m not going to a basketball game!” She would prefer to travel, but Jermaine is afraid of flying. “I’m scared of tall buildings, so how am I going to fly?” he asks. They both laugh. He recently started writing a book in which he imagines the day he’s released. “I imagine I’m driving out in a car and all the people who’ve helped me get out are waiting for me.”
The two kiss goodbye as visitation hours come to an end. They walk in separate directions, and Eshawn turns around and mouths, “I love you,” crossing her arms above her chest and giving two quick pumps near her heart.
Leaving the prison, she says she looks forward to the day Jermaine is released and finally sees how much the world has changed since the ’90s. She adds, “We gotta travel because I haven’t had a vacation for years! I spent all my time going on prison visits and working on getting him out.” When asked if she thinks Jermaine would do the same for her if the situation were reversed, she laughs loudly. “I would hope and I would pray, but I’m not sure anyone could do it with so much loyalty and commitment.” She adds more somberly, “Not everyone is cut out for this.”
Ann Edenfield Sweet
Baffling, perhaps, is that many prison relationships end just when they most seem they should flourish. The uncertainty of life beyond prison and the stress of assimilating back into society can permanently strain a former inmate’s romantic relationship, say experts. “We survived all those years in prison, but we couldn’t make it work when he got out,” says Ann Edenfield Sweet. When her husband was released, he returned home a very bitter man, she says, and their marriage ended four years later. Their lives changed drastically when he was imprisoned, in ways that were later difficult to reconcile. “I suddenly became the caregiver and the breadwinner, the mom and the dad and the cook and the chauffeur. I was forced to grow and change, whereas my husband’s life came to a standstill.” Sweet has been working with prison couples for the better part of two decades, and she estimates that 80 to 85 percent of marriages fail either in prison or outside.
Some inmates return home and are shocked to see modern devices like cellphones and flat-screen TVs, she says. For her husband, the changes were far subtler but similarly painful reminders of time lost. “My husband came home and kept asking why the bedroom wall was a different color and why I had moved certain picture frames,” she says. “Former inmates sometimes feel they have no control over anything, so they begin to intimidate their family.”
As a result, she has called for prisons to hold marriage seminars for couples before they’re released. She also hopes to persuade people to adopt the term “returning citizen” when referring to former convicts. “What it means is that the person has made some terrible mistakes, paid time behind bars and is now ready for a fresh start,” she says.
For Eshawn, the day her husband returns home is still a distant dream. While driving home after the prison visit, she has a minor breakthrough in her husband’s case. A lawyer in Buffalo finally returns her call. “This is him!” she says excitedly. She has been trying for three months to convince him to look at Jermaine’s case. But as the lawyer begins asking questions, it quickly becomes clear he hasn’t read the files closely. “Is there anything in the transcripts that’s so egregious to warrant an appeal?” he asks. “I didn’t see anything in the jury notes.” She tries to contain her frustration, resting her head on the steering wheel. She tells him, “Yes, the co-defendant admitted he was guilty.” The attorney responds, “I see, but your husband was charged with being the actual triggerman?” She says yes. There’s a pause and then the attorney asks, “Could you point me to the relevant parts of the transcript?” Over the static, she tries to explain the intricacies of Jermaine’s case, but the reception fades out. She shakes her head in exasperation. “There are tens of thousands of pages, and I’m probably the only one who has read his entire case file for free,” she says, quickly adding, “I don’t know what we’re going to do, but we’ll manage somehow. We approach the cold, dim train station, and Eshawn gets out of the car. “I’ll wait for the train with you,” she says. “I’m not going to leave you out here all alone.”