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Bill changes requirements for prison inmate proxy marriages

 

BY ELIZABETH KOH and KK REBECCA LAI
Texas Tribune

New limitations on proxy marriage in Texas — a measure legislators passed last session to prevent benefits and insurance fraud — will also rule out tying the knot for people who are incarcerated. House Bill 869, which takes effect Sept. 1, changed rules for those seeking proxy marriages — weddings where either the bride or groom or both are not physically present — to appoint another person to stand in during the ceremony, unless they are serving in the military and stationed outside of the country. Because marriages cannot be conducted inside Texas prisons, inmates have relied on such stand-ins to get married while they are incarcerated. Schelana Walker, County Clerk in Polk County — where licenses for proxy weddings are not uncommon, given the population confined at the Polunsky unit — said the change was discussed at a recent conference. Walker said marriage licenses will not be granted in cases where there are two stand-ins, unless both the bride and groom are in the military. The 1987 U.S. Supreme Court decision Turner v. Safley preserves an inmate's right to get married. But without changes to a Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) policy that prohibits weddings from being conducted inside prison facilities, inmates will no longer be able to get hitched until they're released. Jason Clark, a TDCJ spokesman, wrote in an email that the agency has no policy changes planned. The bill "will have no foreseeable [effect] on the agency or [its] policies," he wrote. The bill is intended to crack down on cases where people have fraudulently sought marriage licenses by proxy without the other person's knowledge in order to receive insurance or other entitlement benefits. Scott Riling, chief of staff for the bill's author, state Rep. Trent Ashby, R-Lufkin, cited the case of a Houston County woman who re-married an incarcerated ex-husband by proxy without his knowledge to rake in insurance benefits after he died. The inmate's daughter discovered the remarriage after her father's death and sued; the woman is now in prison for the fraud, a third-degree felony. "The purpose of the bill was not to make it harder for people to get married," Riling said. "It was to protect those that might become prey to unscrupulous people." The bill saw little opposition during the legislative process, Riling said. It also flew under the radar for a number of inmate advocacy groups. "I wasn't following it that closely and was surprised when it went through," said Jennifer Erschabek, executive director of the Texas Inmate Families Association. "I don't know if there was a lot of information out there about this bill." Most prison inmates, she said, might not find out about the changes until after the bill takes effect. "You don't realize it can't happen until you're down the road… and then find out all of a sudden that you are no longer able to be married," she said. Advocates for inmates say building relationships, such as marriages, can help people who are incarcerated improve their behavior and incentivize reintegration into society. Proxy marriage "gives an inmate something to take advantage of," said former inmate and Texas Cure Executive Director Michael Jewell, who was married by proxy in 2005. Marriage "gives him an anchor out here in the free world." "I see a great deal of harm" in the proxy marriage changes, added Jewell, who served 40 years in prison for murder before being released on parole in 2010. "There are probably several guys inside anticipating proxy marriage." Jewell said while he was incarcerated, proxy marriages were "a fairly regular occurrence" — he estimated he witnessed at least half a dozen a year. The TDCJ does not keep statistics on proxy marriages that occur while inmates are incarcerated. Ann Staggs coordinates proxy marriages hosted by The Prison Show, a longtime Houston radio program for inmates and their families. In the past 16 years, Staggs has coordinated about 30 proxy marriages to and among inmates, starting with her own on the air in December 1997. It is "a lot more work to be married to an incarcerated person," she said. "It's hard to fight long distance, and the making up is not quite as much fun." Despite the challenges, Staggs said marriages by proxy, including her own, can be rewarding. "The men that have someone that they know is to be a permanent part of their life seem to do better in prison than the ones that don't," she said.

 

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