As inmates at the Yankton Federal Prison camp, one of our guilty pleasures was a show called Love After Lockup. Watching TV may seem like a simple thing, but prison is filled with drama – even in trying to find a seat in the TV room. But watching this show, in particular, was worth the effort.
“Love After Lockup” was a “reality” show about the love between a person in prison and a person outside prison. The show followed the couple through to when the incarcerated person is released. The storylines bounced back between absurdity, hilarity, and tragedy.
When “Love After Lockup” came on the TV rooms would be packed with men. We all wanted to see what would happen with these couples as their love story unfolded, or maybe, unraveled.
The show and our collective fascination with it may sound ludicrous but it reveals a larger truth. Prison is a lonely place. We loved watching the show to fill our deep longing for relationships, connectedness, and partnership.
Prison is a loneliness paradox. On one hand, inmates are around other people all the time. Prisons have some of the highest population densities in the entire country. I have been locked up in facilities with 2,500 men and 500 men, 2,000 inmates, and 4,000 inmates. And at the same time, in those places, I have felt terribly alone, isolated, and deeply needed connection.
Maybe that is what COVID is for the uninitiated. COVID 19 lockdowns leave millions of people in urban areas feeling just like this. People ask me, “How are you adjusting to COVID?” For me, the loneliness of COVID feels familiar. Not to say that COVID feels like a prison – they are actually not similar. But the isolation, the living among many while keeping a small “bubble” is very prisonesque.
The familiarity is being surrounded by people but having no one. The familiarity of making family amongst men when blood and marital families are thousands of miles away. The familiarity of smiling and saying, “I’m okay” when I’m really not.
Loneliness in prison is a thick, stifling oppression that no one talks about. An inmate feels the suffocation press in as soon as they get to prison but quickly learns to hide it. The mask goes on, the armor goes up. Only the tough survive so swallow the suffocation whole. The only way to battle the loneliness is to be part of whatever clique or social group you can — White, Christian, Black, Gamers, Natives, Others — whoever you can. Then there you all are together: never alone but desperately lonely and pretending you’re not.
And so, understandably, Love After Lockup becomes incredibly popular.
I often thought what would love look like for me after over four thousand days of incarceration. Would I like the same type of woman? Would I be picky? Would I be willing to compromise? Would I date another felon? Other questions fell on me like incoming mortar: would there be women who would want to date a felon? When do I share/disclose my experience? Would it go the way it tended to on Love After Lockup?
I have been streetside for one year now. Some of that was spent at a halfway house in San Francisco. Some of that has been spent at home with my parents. For a while, I have been in my own apartment.
Now that I’m free, dating has been both predictable and unpredictable. When you’re inside, everyone tells each other that chicks dig felons, so I figured being an ex-con would help me in the dating scene. In prison, there were tons of stories to support the idea. They knew a guy who knew a guy who had lots of women interested in him when he got out. Or they’d heard about one guy who got married as soon as he got out. After watching the “reality” of “Love after Lock Up” I thought the stories must be true.
I am always upfront and honest with the women I date. I tell them this is who I am and this is where I am coming from. Whether it is in real life, on Match, or Bumble it’s usually the same response, “You seem nice, but I don’t have the capacity/time/energy to dive into this or get involved in this.”
I usually respond with some flat nicety, “Thanks for your honesty” or “I understand” but I always wondered what was the “this” that was “too much?” After all the buildup from years of loneliness and believing it was going to be easy to get into a relationship, it was tough. Definitely a rude awakening.
As I reflect on it now, it’s much the same type of responses I got in my search for employment post-prison. Even in California, a state that celebrates its love for the “other” and second chances, I got tons of rejection. I heard a lot of “you seem fully competent, but you just don’t match what we are looking for.” Like those first women I met, the employers said it without saying it.
I did meet women when I got out. Most were my age, in their 30s, and almost all of them were looking for a marriage number two – like me. Most had kids and did not want more. But in addition, I needed someone who could accept me and my past. I was looking for someone who shares my morals and values, someone who shares a walk similar to mine.
It has been exciting to watch my friends get released and to follow their lives. Kids are being born, marriages are happening, and engagements announced. Will I be next? God willing.
I am now in a serious relationship with a woman who shares that faith walk with me, parenting a daughter and living out her faith as an in-home care nurse.
It feels amazing to have a relationship, connectedness, to have relief from loneliness. This is what I longed for all those 4000 days. It is not the story of “Love After Lockup.” It is real and it is a blessing.