D.C. inmates know what it’s like to stand in Courtroom C-10 in a colored jumpsuit flanked by U.S. Marshals and facing a court official. It’s the special moment when they hear that knot-in-the-gut question: “How do you plead?”
But early on Wednesday mornings—with jumpsuit, marshals, and court officer all present—inmates hear a much sweeter question about forsaking all others. And for those who answer, “I do,” there’s even a kiss before returning to the cellblock.
Wednesday is the day that inmates awaiting trial or sentencing head to D.C. Superior Court to get hitched, and judging by the weekly turnout, it’s become a popular stop for the striped-shirt set. The sleek, rounded C-10 chamber that entertains arraignment hearings also plays host to nuptials every week for one hour—enough time for Marriage Bureau Branch Chief Ionnie R. Butler to pronounce three or four couples husband and wife.
While a dozen other civil weddings are performed each week in the marriage bureau’s upstairs offices, the steady stream of inmate marriages in Courtroom C-10 is a trend by itself—and one that surprisingly few in the District’s correctional or court systems know anything about. Rather quietly, Butler has become the patron saint of prisoner weddings in the District, as up to 200 D.C. inmates each year get in line to clamp on another ball and chain.
“The courts have held that marriage is a prisoner’s [fundamental] right,” says Jonathan Smith, executive director of the D.C. Prisoners’ Legal Services Project. But even Smith, widely regarded as the man who knows the most about the D.C. corrections system, is intrigued by how popular the Wednesday courthouse rite has become for the pre-sentencing crowd. “I am surprised that the number is that high,” he says.
If burning love drives most folks outside the walls of prison into marriage, it would be swell to believe the same goes for those on the inside. But with the prohibition of conjugal visits in D.C. prisons, and the relatively long waits to enjoy any of the other perks of married life, a lot of observers suspect that the prospect of a trip outside the razor wire figures prominently in inmates’ wedding plans.
One Superior Court commissioner thinks the courthouse wedding is a sure way to snap cellblock monotony. “I’m sure it’s a lot nicer for the bride and her family to not have to do it in the prison,” he says. “I suspect, just as soon, that a lot of the prisoners would just rather take the bus ride.”
But courthouse scuttlebutt says that inmates expect the ceremony to improve their prospects for a lenient sentence. “There’s guys who’ll think, ‘If I can get this in front of the sentencing judge and get all lovey-dovey in front of him with my new wife, when I go back the judge will have this warm feeling about it and cut me a break.’ That’s why most judges won’t touch it,” says a court official who handles prisoner matters.
There’s also the chance of heading off incriminating testimony in a trial by marrying a witness in your case. “There may be the rare circumstance where someone wants to take advantage of the marital privilege,” says Smith, referring to constitutional protections on testifying against a spouse.
Butler says she won’t speculate on the reasons prisoners and their mates keep appearing before her each Wednesday.
“I would prefer that they wait until the prisoner is released, so they can get married over here,” she says, gesturing to the private ceremony room next to her office. “But they all still go through with it.”
Courtroom C-10 is not exactly a romantic setting. An obnoxious fluorescent glare gives the courtroom-cum-wedding-chamber all the intimacy of a lecture hall. Family and friends can attend but must sit in the spectators’ section because only bride and groom, marshals, court staffers, and witnesses may enter the glass-enclosed “inside well,” where judges, clerks, attorneys, and defendants usually roost.
“We try to make it nice,” says Butler, who performs 99 percent of the weddings in C-10. “But we don’t serve up punch and cookies or anything like that. The courtroom is under the marshal’s domain—it’s locked down for security. I have to go by their procedures.”
Butler says each service is boilerplate fare and lasts only about five minutes. But she only crams three or four ceremonies into each hourlong session because prisoner weddings entail special procedures—checking purses and bags for contraband, “patting down” the bride for weapons, unlocking handcuffs—that aren’t part of your average civil ceremony.
“You can’t have cameras or videos or anything like that,” says Butler. “Those are not permitted in any District courtroom. You could have a sketch artist in there if you want, but no cameras.” With only five minutes to capture the scene, however, that calls for a top-dollar sketcher.
Butler says the vast majority of C-10 weddings involve imprisoned grooms and brides from the outside. “Some of the women come all dressed up, in a white dress with the veils and all,” she says. The grooms appear in their jumpsuits—the color of which depends on their sentencing status. Butler makes sure the grooms are unshackled during the ceremony so the clatter of chains and handcuffs doesn’t spoil the mood. “I won’t allow that,” she says.
Sometimes the bride and groom appear in matching outfits. “I have had couples in which both are incarcerated,” Butler says. “We have the man and the woman come in from jail for the service.”
A typical service ends with the traditional kiss, the signing of the ceremony book, and the groom trudging back with the marshals into the cellblock, which abuts the arraignment courtroom. The bride and wedding party head upstairs for some final paperwork in the marriage bureau office. Butler likes to make it clear that her office’s services end there—and do not include an extra that a surprising number of the brides assume is forthcoming.
“There is a myth going around—I don’t know if it spreads on the buses out to Lorton or whatever—but it is a myth: that we have a motel room paid by the courts for the couple to get together in afterwards,” says Butler, somehow without smiling. “You understand, right? I try to stamp out that myth as soon as I can.
“I had one woman call me—she was very upset,” recalls Butler. “She said, ‘What do you mean I don’t get to stay with him?’ I said, ‘No, ma’am. We don’t offer those kinds of services. I don’t think that the marshals do either.’”
Butler says the “incarceration weddings”—as the office lingo goes—are available on a first-come, first-served basis, arranged much like other civil ceremonies. “The only difference from any other request,” she explains, “is that they have to let me know where the prisoners are so that I can ask the marshals to bring them here for the service.”
The marriage bureau restricts the services to the weekly slot that runs from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m., which often creates a backlog of marriage requests. The remaining Wednesdays this September, for example, are booked solid with inmate weddings. Most couples endure the wait because judges—though frequently asked—almost always refuse to celebrate a prisoner’s nuptials. “They don’t want the possible conflict,” Butler says.
When Butler is out, two other court officers are the usual fill-ins. But since few people truly know the routine, she tries to limit her absences.
“I try not to be out on Wednesdays,” she says. “Wednesday is a day that I like to go smoothly.”
A recent Wednesday did not go all that smoothly. Butler was unable to get to the courthouse on time, and three brides and their half-dozen or so guests had to cool their heels upstairs in the marriage bureau office until they could march down six floors to C-10. Sure, at C-10 there’s no limo to arrive late, no flowers to wither, and no in-laws to stumble in drunk—but something always goes wrong on your wedding day.
The ceremonies started an hour off-schedule, which created more than a little confusion outside C-10, because its usual late-morning crowd was assembling: nattily dressed attorneys, fidgety police officers, worried-looking folks facing arraignment, and peeved-looking folks picking up someone locked up the night before. Onlookers peeked through slim windowpanes in the door to catch a glimpse of Butler, the marshals, and the wedding parties.
“Hey there’s people getting married in there!” exclaimed one lawyer, prompting a flurry of lame jokes and several mock marriage proposals. “What a mistake they’re making,” an older gentleman peering inside mumbled, apparently not in jest.
At one point, all the courtroom’s lights blazed on, the doors were unlocked, and the motley crew of guilty and not-guilty, lawyers, cops, and stragglers burst through the opening. But the marshals inside leaped to the doors and turned them all back—one more couple had yet to exchange vows. “I don’t know who opened the doors,” Butler would later say, “but they knew we weren’t done.”
About 10 minutes later, the better halves of three newlywed couples elbowed their way out the main courtroom door into the rush of the arraignment mob. Their lesser halves were escorted by the marshals over the threshold of the side door—bonded in marriage, but separated by the long arm of the law.