The WikiLeaks founder wants to marry in prison – here’s how the big day will go. By Etan Smallman
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You will have heard the old joke about marriage being a life sentence. But, for some people, matrimony begins while serving time. The WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange revealed last week that he wants to marry his partner, Stella Moris, at Belmarsh prison in London. He is being held at the high-security jail as US authorities try to extradite him on hacking and espionage charges.
Moris, Assange’s former lawyer and the mother of the two children he fathered while a fugitive in the capital’s Ecuadorean embassy, said: “We’re looking into getting married in the prison because we’ve been engaged since 2016.”
Prisoners have a legal right to enter into marriage in the place of their detention, according to the Marriage Act 1983. This applies equally to gay and lesbian detainees, thanks to the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013, and, more recently, to civil partnerships for all couples.
But the rules on marrying outside prison grounds were tightened in April after the Justice Secretary, Robert Buckland, was reported to be “absolutely furious” that a jailed drugs kingpin was escorted from HMP Humber, East Yorkshire, to his nuptials at Goole Register Office.
Under the new rules, only the least serious Category D detainees, those in open prisons, will “normally be permitted to attend an outside ceremony”.
There is a presumption that prisoners in Category C (training and resettlement) prisons – previously able to attend an outside ceremony – will now have to marry inside. The same still applies to Category B (local or training prisons) inmates, while those who wish to tie the knot in Category A high-security institutions “must” get married inside prison.
But prison reform campaigners, who stress the importance for prisoners of maintaining family relationships, believe the change is a backward step. Peter Dawson, director of the Prison Reform Trust, accused Mr Buckland of “playing to the gallery” with the tightening of the rules.
He added: “The Justice Secretary has accepted the recommendations of two reports by Lord Farmer designed to strengthen the crucial relationships between prisoners and their families. Both are several years old and crucial recommendations remain unimplemented.
If the wedding is a civil ceremony, it will be conducted by the local registrar, but prisoners may request that a religious minister from outside perform the service. A “reasonable number of guests” – as decided by the governor – is allowed, while anyone raising an objection against the marriage by arriving at the jail on the day should be allowed to speak to the person officiating.
Prison charities told i that weddings behind bars are “extremely rare”. A spokesman for Prison Fellowship, a Christian organisation offering support to prisoners, said he was not aware of any of the charity’s 3,000 volunteers having ever been involved in one. The Ministry of Justice does not publish figures.
Jonathan (not his real name) got married in HMP Holme House in County Durham while serving a 10-month sentence for driving while disqualified. He was only allowed six guests from outside, and three who were prisoners. The ceremony, conducted by the prison chaplain, lasted about an hour during visiting hours and there was no reception afterwards, just a glass of non-alcoholic lager and some cake for the groom and his fellow inmates.
So perhaps it is little wonder that he and his wife decided to “do it again properly when I got out” and consider that second date as their “real anniversary”.
In 2015, a gay couple serving life sentences for murder in Full Sutton prison near York made headlines with their marriage – thought to be the first same-sex union ever to take place at Her Majesty’s pleasure. Murderer and paedophile Mikhail Gallatinov and Marc Goodwin, sentenced to life for a homophobic killing on Blackpool seafront, were said to have been having regular sex in the prison library.
There is no specific rule prohibiting sexual relationships between prisoners but officers, if they are aware, will step in to stop them, according to the Commission on Sex in Prison, carried out by the Howard League for Penal Reform.
On prison weddings, chief executive Frances Crook said: “People should have the same civil rights in prison as outside, and family life for loved ones outside prison should be supported.
“Other countries support family life better. We should encourage home leave and, when that is not possible, family visits should promote healthy relationships. The Howard League was instrumental in setting up all-day visits for children of imprisoned women in Holloway that were then copied across the prison estate.”
Given that conjugal visits are not allowed in the UK, after a prison wedding either partner could theoretically later seek to annul the marriage on the grounds that it was not consummated (this does not apply to same-sex couples).
According to government rules in England and Wales, prisoners and their partners are expected to pay any costs associated with the marriage or civil partnership, including those for transport and an escort if the wedding happens on the outside.
In 2014, it was reported that 27 marriages that took place inside prisons in Scotland were funded from the “jail kitty”. The Scottish Prison Service said that in some prisons the cost of a buffet – consisting of sandwiches and sausage rolls from the canteen – for a maximum of six guests plus the couple, was covered by donations and profits raised from sales in the on-site shop.
“Britain’s most violent prisoner”, Charles Bronson, married his girlfriend, Paula Williamson, in 2017 in the chapel of HMP Wakefield in West Yorkshire. The soap actress said in advance that there would be no consummation: “We’re allowed to touch through bars, so we kiss and hold hands.”
The prisoner was permitted to wear trousers with a zip for the first time in 20 years, having been denied the luxury because of security concerns.
After Bronson returned to his cell, Williamson left the jail in a silver Mercedes decorated with the words “Just married” before flying to Malta with friends: “He told me to go on honeymoon without him.”