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Loving While Locked Up

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Courtesy of Monae Alvarado
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The marriage license took three months to secure. The ceremony only lasted 20 minutes.

When a judge locks someone up, it’s not just that one person serving a sentence. Families and loved ones suffer the punishment too. Despite the economic and emotional hardship of loving an incarcerated person, people still meet and court one another through prison walls. On this edition of Embodied, Sutina and Steven Green share how their relationship found root during Steven’s incarceration.

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Credit Courtesy of the Greens
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Steven, Sutina and their family while he was still incarcerated

Through letter-writing and monitored phone calls, Sutina reconnected with Steven. During visitation, he helped their children with school projects and jiu jitsu practice. She supported him through the grief of a life sentence without possibility of parole. In the end, her persistent love pushed him to request and receive a commutation from the Governor of California.

Love can even flourish without outside pollination. Adriel Alvarado proposed to Monae in the prison yard. The two were serving time at a men’s prison in Pennsylvania. Monae is a woman. Against her will, she was sent to the men’s prison because of the sex listed on her birth certificate. Their romance grew despite the violently-enforced protocols of prison — string hanging between cells carried their love notes, and friends were look-outs for smooches in the chapel. Even solitary confinement failed to stop their flirting and dreaming.

Interview Highlights

Sutina explains visitation policies:
It's one kiss and hug at the beginning of the visit, and one kiss and hug at the end. We were fortunate enough that we were able to sit next to each other, so we could hold hands. We played games. Clothing was very strict. There was certain colors you couldn't wear, certain types of clothes you couldn't wear. … So I had my own prison wardrobe. It was hard. And then eventually, Stephen and I ended up having children while he was incarcerated. So that was another added stress with bringing in children into visitation as well.

I proposed to her in front of all these criminals.

Steven remembers doubting the longevity of their relationship:
The marriage came more from her perspective. As time went on, I kept just thinking I'm gonna get a ‘Dear John’ letter, or I'm gonna call her and she's just gonna be like: Hey, I can't do this anymore. Because it's so rare that relationships last like beyond five years. I mean, I think that's just normal, even out here in the streets, like in the public, right? But especially in there with all the different added stressors. And so I just approached each visit and each time with her as just that this is my special moment with her. I'm going to spend it now with her. And I'm just going to enjoy it because I don't know when the last time it'll be when I get to see her again.

Adriel describes finding alone time with Monae while incarcerated:
Me and Monae, we snuck around, we did crazy stuff. That's why we're like really known in the [Pennsylvania Department of Corrections]. There's stories that we snuck around in the library. We snuck around in the cells — we used to rent other inmates’ cells, because everybody knew where we lived at, so if we wasn't, you know, in eye’s view, they'd start looking for us, and we'd be in other people’s [cells]. So it was only, at the most, probably a half an hour. ... But when I came home —  oh my god. Yeah, I mean, I had to throw in the flag a couple times.

It only lasted for 20 minutes. We made our vows and gave our kisses.
Monae Alvarado

Monae walks through the marriage process with an incarcerated fiancé:
It took us three months to actually get married officially. I had to do everything by myself. … The city I was in, Philadelphia, they required two people to be present at the courthouse to get the registration for the marriage license. And then another county like two hours away from where I live, they didn't need the second party. … And two weeks later, he got on the video conference and registered with them to do that. And then a whole nother two months for them to set up a whole day. And on Nov. 22, 2016, we got married. It only lasted for 20 minutes. We made our vows and gave our kisses, and they didn’t give us time to be together. Just kicked us right out. Then June 2017, I was approved for a visit.

Monae and Adriel in Times Square
Credit Monae Alvarado
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The Alvarados in Times Square, fulfilling one of the dreams they planned while locked up.

Where they are now:

Monae and Adriel Alvarado will celebrate five years of marriage in November. They live and work together in Philadelphia.Despite COVID, the world feels open to them and they have travelled safely to many of the cities they dreamed about while locked up together.

Sutina and Steven Green are nearing their seventeenth wedding anniversary in March. Steven is pursuing his education full-time and Sutina is the communications manager at RE:STORE JUSTICE, an advocacy organization that works to end life and extreme sentences by changing the way society and the legal system respond to violence & harm.

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Credit Courtesy of Sutina Green
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The Greens are enjoying life together in California. Both Steven and Sutina remain in touch with friends made through incarceration.

The following people contributed to this episode:

Special thanks to our friends at Ear Hustle, Judith Van Wyk and Melissa Radcliff for their help with this episode.

Grant Holub-Moorman coordinates events and North Carolina outreach for WUNC, including a monthly trivia night. He is a founding member of Embodied and a former producer for The State of Things.
Anita Rao is an award-winning journalist and the host and creator of "Embodied," a live, weekly radio show and seasonal podcast about sex, relationships & health. She's also the managing editor of WUNC's on-demand content.