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Mia Armstrong

In Sickness, In Health — and In Prison

Najeebah Al-Ghadban for The Marshall Project.

Mia Armstrong | The Marshall Project | August 2019 | 9 minutes (2,400 words)

This article was co-published with The Marshall Project, a nonprofit news organization covering the U.S. criminal justice system. Sign up for their newsletter, or follow The Marshall Project on Facebook or Twitter.

Niccole Wetherell and Paul Gillpatrick were engaged in 2012. The state of Nebraska has prevented their wedding ever since​.

Wetherell is serving a life sentence for first-degree murder, housed in a prison about 50 miles away from her fiance, Gillpatrick, who is serving a 55-to-90-year sentence for second-degree murder.

The pair, who met in 1998, have come to accept they cannot marry in person. Instead, they want to wed via video conference, and they want an end to a prison policy that forbids Nebraska inmates from marrying each other except in “special circumstances.” Wetherell and Gillpatrick argue they have a “fundamental right to marry.”

In June, U.S. District Judge Robert Rossiter ​affirmed​ that right. The case is now in appeal. But the legal precedent Rossiter cited has a quirky history that involves an infamous co-ed prison, an impromptu wedding, a soon-to-follow divorce and a U.S. Supreme Court decision.

That decision, Turner v. Safley, established how courts should weigh the constitutionality of prison regulations, and has formed the legal basis for prison weddings across the country​—​most often between one incarcerated person and someone on the outside. It opened the doors for a niche industry of ​officiants​ ​who​ ​specialize​ ​in​ prison weddings. And its clear articulation of marriage as a fundamental human right was even cited in ​Obergefell v. Hodges​, the landmark Supreme Court decision that in 2015 affirmed the right to marriage for same-sex couples.

It all started in 1980 at a prison in Missouri. Read more…