Published: Friday, Aug. 13th, 2021
“Prison walls do not form a barrier separating inmates from the protections of the Constitution.”
That’s what Justice O’Connor wrote in 1987, when the Supreme Court upheld that marriage is a fundamental right that must be easily accessible and protected, even for prisoners and inmates. Turner v. Safley was decided 5-4, with the Court citing similar rulings in Zablocki v. Redhail and Loving v. Virginia.
Prison walls aren’t a barrier to love. Prisoners can and do cultivate loving, long-term relationships. And when a prison inmate and their spouse-to-be decide to marry, they must plan and organize a ceremony and find a wedding officiant… just like any other couple!
Unlike other couples, however, prison wedding planning is frequently complicated by legal hurdles, paperwork, apathetic administrators, strict procedures and restrictions, security clearances, and uncertainty. Getting married while incarcerated takes work. Even couples with a good sense of humor, or previous experience navigating the penal system, are left with less time for the fun parts of wedding planning -- choosing outfits, planning and writing vows, and deciding who to invite to the ceremony.
Most weddings scheduled inside prisons last year were put on hold during the COVID-19 pandemic, and virtual wedding ceremonies were only permitted in a handful of states. Now, prisons across the country are experiencing a surge in weddings as over a year of postponed ceremonies start to move forward.
One AMM Minister, Reverend Wendy Wortham of TDCJ Weddings and Texas Twins Events, said that she performs inmate weddings in 47 states and has a current waiting list of over 3,000 couples.
This surge has led to increased demand for wedding officiants who can perform these weddings. Unfortunately, the approval process can be intimidating and confusing at first. We get it!
We believe that all adults have the right to marry, and that they have the right to choose who performs their ceremony. Making the prison wedding process less mysterious to AMM Ministers helps to bring compassion, patience, understanding, celebration, and love to inmates and their families, so they can have the weddings and marriages they deserve!
We must stress this point: This article is only an introduction. It’s not legal advice. Each state and prison system have their own procedures, so it’s essential that you contact them directly for the most up-to-date instruction. The goal of this article is to introduce the process, and give you the tools and direction to research, plan, and officiate your own wedding ceremony.
1. Become authorized to perform marriage in the state where the ceremony will take place.
2. Ask the couple if they’ve started their application to marry, where they are in the process, whether they’ve received a marriage license, and if they’ve been assigned a wedding date.
The couple is responsible for obtaining their marriage license with the help of their case manager or an administrator.
3. Familiarize yourself with the state’s Department Of Corrections (DOC) guidelines for couples seeking marriage, and with all state marriage laws. Guidelines for couples can usually be found on the DOC website, and will help you better answer questions and empathize with the couple during planning. Remember: This can be a vulnerable and chaotic time for couples.
4. Research the state’s DOC procedures for approving officiants. What codes/statutes apply to you? What will you need to show or prove? Each state is different. Some states list this criteria on their DOC website, but in most cases you’ll need to contact the prison directly to find out what’s required.
At minimum, you’ll be asked to provide a government issued photo-ID, your date of birth, your ministry credentials (a Letter of Good Standing and Ordination Certificate), and proof of officiant registration in the state (if required). They might also ask for your social security number and run a criminal background check on you.
5. Gather the necessary paperwork and submit it to the facility before the couple’s ceremony. Pay attention to deadlines -- each state has its own cutoffs for receiving paperwork, and these are often weeks or months before the wedding date.
6. Learn the facility’s visitation guidelines. You’ll be entering the prison as a ‘professional visitor’ or ‘special visitor’ to officiate, and must follow all standard visitation guidelines, including dress code. You might be required to fill out an application and be added to a visitor’s list.
Pay attention to allowed/banned items, and guidelines on photography, recording devices, etc. Visitor guidelines can usually be found on the prison’s website, or by calling them directly.
7. The day of the ceremony: Arrive on time, with photo-ID and any needed paperwork, and paper copies of the ceremony script and the couple’s vows. You might not be allowed to bring electronic devices, so bring a backup paper copy of anything you’ve stored electronically. Keep in mind that paper materials can also be inspected for safety and vows may need to be approved beforehand.
Decide whether or not you’ll arrive with the intended spouse, and plan for lengthy check-in procedures. Will you be in charge of any decorations, supplies, or rings?
8. Perform the ceremony and sign the license.
*Different prison systems have different levels of security. State and federal prisons will operate differently, as will county jails, ICE / DRO detention centers, and other correctional facilities. Check with your local facility for site-specific information.
The outline above will give you a good starting point for conducting your first prison wedding.
We answer some common questions in more depth below. We’ll cover:
Anyone authorized to solemnize marriage in a particular state can seek approval to perform weddings inside a prison in that state, including ordained ministers. However, each facility will have its own additional approval process for outside ministers / officiants.
Correctional facilities (also called correctional centers, institutions, penitentiaries, complexes, units and prisons) are structured for different levels of security -- and security clearances. The officiant approval process in most state-level facilities is outlined by the state’s Department of Corrections or Department of Criminal Justice, and implemented by site administrators.
Some prisons do not allow outside ministers or officiants to perform marriages for inmates. Some prisons only allow on-staff Chaplains to schedule and conduct ceremonies, and you won’t be allowed to marry inmates in these facilities.
Facilities that do allow outside ministers will have strict guidelines for their approval process, which we’ll describe in more detail below. These prisons usually maintain a list of approved officiants.
A prison’s Unit Chaplain or Warden will sometimes give couples a list of approved officiants to choose from, after the couple has completed a review process and been approved for a marriage license. If you’d like to perform weddings at one of these facilities, it will be helpful (if not necessary) to be added to this list.
Start with a visit to the state’s Department of Corrections website. This website probably won’t answer your question directly (unfortunately), but it should provide information on how inmates apply to marry -- including details on who they can ask to officiate their marriage. This can help point you in the right direction.
No matter what, we strongly recommend you call the prison directly for up-to-date information.
Calling a facility for the most current information is especially important during COVID-19, as some high-risk facilities will continue to restrict access (ongoing or intermittent restrictions) for the duration of the pandemic in order to limit the spread of infection.
To speak with a prison administrator, Warden, or Chaplain, contact the prison’s main switchboard first, and ask to be connected with the correct party.
Each prison has its own procedure for approving an outside minister or pastor and these policies change over time. Contacting the prison directly is the best way to receive up-to-date information.
You must be authorized to solemnize marriage in the state and county where the corrections facility is located, and some states also require you to register as an officiant.
Be prepared to provide any of the following: name, address, phone number, a government-issued photo ID, social security card or number, birth certificate or date of birth, proof of minister registration with the state (if required), your ministry credentials (including a Letter of Good Standing and Ordination Certificate), a criminal background check (through the NCIC), and other documentation. In some cases, having a prior felony conviction might disqualify you.
It’s helpful to know that a wedding officiant might also be referred to as a marriage official, officiator, minister, reverend, pastor, volunteer minister, officiating clergy, or simply a designated person in charge of solemnization, depending on your region.
After you’re approved, there might be additional security requirements leading up to the wedding. For example, the Chaplain or corrections officer might need to approve your ceremony script or day-of clothing before the wedding can begin.
The officiant approval process can take a couple days or a few weeks, depending on where you live. Give yourself as much time as possible by contacting the facility soon after you’ve received a deposit from the couple toward your services.
The couple will also have deadlines for submitting your name as their officiant to the DOC. For example, the Georgia Department of Corrections requires the intended spouse to submit contact information for an outside minister at least 30 days before the approved wedding date (as of 9/29/16).
In some cases, the prison’s Chaplain must perform weddings inside the facility, unless there’s a conflict with the inmate’s denominational commitments or religious convictions (in which case, an outside officiant is brought in).
In other cases, prison chaplains and staff are not allowed to perform weddings or serve as witnesses, so couples must ask a professional wedding officiant or ‘officiator’ to perform the wedding.
Many couples won’t realize they need a ceremony or an officiant until the last minute, because no one has told them. This can add to the stress and ‘last minute’ panic of finding one, even if they’ve been working toward the ceremony for months!
Most states have groups that provide community support to the families of inmates. These groups also keep lists of qualified officiants, and will recommend trusted professionals to couples planning to marry.
The couple is in charge of obtaining a marriage license. This might involve more steps than usual. Because prisoners can’t appear in person in front of a county clerk or clerk of court, they might be required to complete an ‘affidavit of absent applicant.’
The wedding officiant signs the marriage license in the same way they would for any other wedding.
It’s not easy! Prison couples go through a long, complicated process to be approved for a marriage license and ceremony date. It can take weeks, or even months to complete, and depends on how much communication an inmate has with their case manager or administrators, how busy those administrators are, and how willing they are to help get things done. Despite laws protecting prisoners’ rights, in practice, the process can feel demeaning and frustrating to many families.
In most cases, both the inmate and their partner must complete an application, expressing written intent to marry or enter into a domestic partnership. This application must be approved by the Warden and Chaplain. There might also be a review of the relationship, an extensive review of the inmate’s criminal record, premarital counseling, and other requirements.
Much of the planning work will be done by the person outside. This is often costly, in terms of both time and money, and they may have to travel long distances depending on where a loved one is incarcerated.
If you’d like to know more, your state’s guidelines for prisoners seeking marriage will (almost always) be available on the state’s government website by linking to the DOC. A simple internet search, using the terms wedding, prison, and the name of your state will bring up useful results.
As an example, check out how the Oregon Department of Corrections shares their information on planning Weddings and Domestic Partnership Ceremonies.
The ceremony itself is arranged by the Chaplain or the facility’s Religious Coordinator in coordination with the couple.
Different facilities allow different types of ceremonies. These might be in-person, where couples can dress in regular wedding clothes, invite guests, hold hands, and kiss at the end of the ceremony. Or they might be restricted to no-contact or limited-contact policies, with the inmate and their partner and officiant separated by glass. Ceremonies might be held in a visiting area or a chapel, and photographs may or may not be allowed.
During COVID, in-person ceremonies were put on hold, and some states allowed weddings to be performed remotely using virtual video conferencing technology (like Microsoft Teams, Zoom, and Skype).
There will be a time limit, and all interactions will be monitored by corrections officers. The officiant will perform the service as they usually would, reading from their script, asking for a declaration of intent, and helping the couple exchange vows and rings (if allowed), and pronouncing the couple married.
In general, family and friends must be approved ahead of time in order to be added to a visitors list. Guests are usually limited to a maximum of 6 to 8 people, but some states allow fewer, and others don’t allow guests at all.
The day of the wedding, you’ll need a photo ID and your minister credentials. Be prepared to leave your phone and other belongings in a car or locker, and make sure that you bring a paper copy of the wedding script.
Become a Wedding Officiant with Our Free Online Ordination!