Jul 4 • 17M

Chapter 4, Part 2: The Prison Brides’ Club

This section of SMIRK discusses the other women I met and befriended while visiting Martin Shkreli in prison, and the strength of character it takes to be a "prison bride."

 
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My experiences uncovering the story of, and falling in love with, Martin Shkreli.
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It could have been any “girls’ night out.” Over calorie-laden plates of chicken Alfredo and whipped brownie cheesecake at a Perkins in central Pennsylvania in December 2019, Rita, Sue, Nancy* and I unwound, gossiped and giggled, and shared intimate details of our lives. 

The one thing we didn’t talk about was sex. That’s because our boyfriends were in federal prison, and thus our romances were sexless.

In my late 30s, I was the youngest in the group; the others were in their 40s and early 50s. Sue was a bookkeeper in Philadelphia; Rita worked as a nurse in an Indiana hospital; Donna worked as a corporate trainer.

Our romances with incarcerated men had all begun in different ways, too. Sue had been a business associate of her now-boyfriend, Matt, when he was prosecuted over his ties to a fraudster who bilked people of millions.

Rita met Charles, a former professional boxer sentenced to life for buying cocaine, while visiting another friend of hers in prison. Nancy had known her boyfriend John* before he went to prison, but drew closer to him while he was incarcerated as they bonded over their strong Catholic faith. (Nancy’s and John’s names have been changed here to protect their identity.)

And me, well… after my marriage fell apart, I’d fallen for a then-former source.  

At the Pennsylvania Perkins, which was close to the prison where Martin had been transferred earlier that year, it didn’t matter who he was, who I was, or what his crimes were. I was just one of the girls — nibbling on bites of cheesecake, speculating over which prison visiting room guards had crushes on us, and cooing over pictures of Rita’s “grand-babies.” 

We didn’t know it then, but it ended up being our only girl’s night. A couple months later, COVID-19 ended visitation at the prison for more than a year. 

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In truth, those kinds of nights out among the women who regularly visited the incarcerated men at FCI Allenwood Low, located near the Little League Hall of Fame in Williamsport, were pretty uncommon. Prison environments typically breed anxiety and suspicion, not warmth and human connection. Under constant watch by corrections officers — who tell you when and where to sit, move or stand — many visitors don’t often feel comfortable chit-chatting and making friends. 

The stigma associated with being a “prison bride” also served as an impediment to building friendships. We all knew how women (and men) in our shoes were typically perceived: as desperate, easy marks, ripe for being manipulated by sleazy con artists. Even around each other, we harbored fears of being mistaken for the stereotype.

After dinner, the four of us strolled to a nearby Kohl’s and picked out sparkly holiday earrings, which were on sale, to add some festive touches to our next morning’s outfits. Conscious of the drabness of prison interiors, we all liked to doll ourselves up a bit to cheer up our men.

We then lingered outside in a parking lot, chatting excitedly despite the bitter cold that numbed our fingers and toes. The life of a prison bride was usually so brutally lonely, Rita, Nancy and Sue lamented. This outing — which I had loosely organized — they said was one of the happiest nights they had experienced in a long time.

In the morning, when we arrived in the lobby of FCI Allenwood Low together bright eyed and smiling, the usually stone-faced corrections officers couldn’t help but notice our high spirits. As “regulars,” we were all known fairly well by the visiting room staff, and they were aware of our budding friendship. 

“Did you girls have a good time last night?” A burly guard asked, as he led us inside.

Prison visiting rooms are strange places. Crowded, noisy and reeking of microwave pizza and chicken wings, they are reminiscent of a school cafeteria. Prisoners and visitors are packed closely together in plastic chairs facing each other, while corrections officers rove around, like lunch ladies or recess supervisors, quick to admonish (or punish) anyone who looks like they’re stepping out of line.

When arriving to see someone in federal prison, it’s always the same drill. Apart from change for the over-priced vending machines, visitors can bring nothing in: no cell phones, no lip gloss, no Tylenol, no reading or writing materials. No skirts above the knee, no open-toed shoes, no bare shoulders, and nothing remotely akin to Spandex are allowed either. 

And woe be to the woman who tries to wear an underwire bra. She is liable to attract death glares from other visitors waiting to clear the metal detector. If it keeps going off, there’s no TSA pat-down to get through. She will have to either change into another bra or yank out the underwires in the bathroom.

The clothing regulations often fall disproportionately on women of color. A pair of jeans or a skirt which might be deemed acceptable for a white woman could be ruled as “too tight” on a Black woman. She has no hope of winning that argument, though. At best, the guards will instruct her to change into something else and come back later. At worst, she’ll be told she cannot come in at all.

I’d seen it happen to Rita, who was Black. She was told that her carefully-chosen, ever-so-slightly body-skimming knee-length cotton skirt was “too tight.” Always prepared for this possibility, she had another outfit in the car.

Sue was the first “prison bride” friend I’d made, shortly after Martin had been transferred there after a highly-publicized incident involving a contraband cell phone at another prison. (More on that in a future SMIRK section.) Both of us had arrived early, around 8:00 a.m., one Saturday morning. Like me, she was somewhat conspicuously white and professional-looking. About two-thirds of the federal prison population, and roughly the same proportion of visitors, are Black or Hispanic. 

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A petite woman with long, blonde hair and a chic-but-understated sense of style, Sue projected the assertive take-no-sh*t demeanor of an urbanite. I wondered where she was from and who she was there to see. But I knew it would be rude to ask those questions outright. I complimented her cute black espadrilles instead.

“Thanks,” she said. “These are my prison shoes.”

In the early morning, before it gets crowded, the visitor room is almost peaceful. Visitors sit in near-silence with nothing to do but steal glances at each other until the loved ones they are there to see are permitted to enter. 

Sue sat several seats away from me, and I watched as she stuck out a foot, when the corrections officers weren’t looking, and nudged the chair where her boyfriend would sit toward her ever so slightly. When being seated across from one another is as close as you can get to your loved one, every inch counts.

I tried to calm the swarm of butterflies hurling themselves at the lining of my stomach, as I waited anxiously for a short and much-longed-for embrace with Martin. Federal prison visiting guidelines typically allow a hug and “one brief, closed-mouth kiss” when greeting or saying goodbye to a loved one, but no other physical contact.

A highway cutting through central Pennsylvania. (The drive to Allenwood looked like this.) (Getty Images)

Sue’s partner, Matt, was one of the earliest arrivals that day. A neatly-groomed, trim white man in his early 50s, he looked like a businessman and carried himself with an easy grace. 

Martin, as usual, was late. When he finally appeared through the door, his dark hair was rumpled and his tan uniform un-ironed. A patchy beard clung to his angular cheeks. His eyes cast around the room, searching for my face, then gleamed as they landed on me. He approached me and we threw our arms around each other, and then exchanged a quick and effortless kiss.

“Hey, babe,” he said, grinning. “It’s great to see you. You look beautiful.” He sat down and we drank in each other’s attention, becoming oblivious to what was going on in the rest of the room. I tried to urge him to nibble on a KitKat, Fritos and other salt and sugar-ridden favorites of his I had bought, but as usual he demurred until I ate something, too. 

Hours later, while I attempted to feed a dollar bill into one of the notoriously unreliable vending machines, I spotted Sue and mustered up the courage to introduce myself.

“Hi, I’m Christie,” I blurted out suddenly. “My boyfriend is the Pharma Bro.”

“Oh! I saw,” she replied. “I’m Sue. Aren’t these machines just the worst?” 

There was a pregnant pause, and she said what we were both thinking: She wished we could exchange numbers. But we had neither our phones nor anything to write on. We also knew we would be shooed off of the premises immediately after visiting hours were over. I told her that I could find her if she told me her boyfriend’s name. 

Back at my apartment that evening, I found his case information on the internet, and then an email address for his lawyer. Through him, I was able to get to Sue, and soon we were chatting away like old pals.We started comparing notes on our experiences with the system, and how our boyfriends had been portrayed by the government and in the press. 

Matt was a real estate financier who had been, she said, tangentially connected to a group of businessmen who defrauded their clients. When the scheme was uncovered by the Wall Street Journal, the conspirators all ran to the prosecutors and struck cooperation deals; Matt, believing he was not responsible for their crimes, went to trial. He was convicted and sentenced to prison for 16 years.

She was horrified and disgusted by how Matt’s case was covered in the news media. “It was so biased, and twisted,” she told me bitterly. “There is no ‘innocent until proven guilty.’ There’s no fairness.” 

The one thing that held her together was Matt, she said. Nearly every weekend for more than five years, she had driven three hours to see him. And, despite his situation, Matt maintained a relentlessly positive outlook. He had adapted well to prison life, had a spotless disciplinary record, and was highly trusted by much of the prison staff. (As his prison job, he worked as a driver who ferried other incarcerated people around the 4,252-acre compound.)

FCI Allenwood Low, as pictured on the Bureau of Prisons website.

He was about to be “downgraded” to a minimum security prison camp, which would be slightly more comfortable and less restrictive. Those little milestones counted for so much, from a psychological perspective.

“My only fear now is his health,” she continued. “He has no issues, but you know how bad the medical care [in prison] is.”

She was right to be worried.

By Jan. 13, 2021, a total of 43,253 federal prisoners — about a third of the entire federal prison system population — had contracted COVID-19. People in prison were also among the last groups to gain access to vaccines, even though they were among those facing the greatest risk, in the eyes of many health experts. Today, the infection rate remains about the same, although most federal prisoners have received at least two vaccine doses. (Vaccination rates are lower in many state prisons, according to data gathered by the COVID Prison Project, an organization of public health scientists.)

Nearly 300 people incarcerated in federal prisons have ultimately died of the disease, including some while they were begging for compassionate release from the courts, or after being rejected.

The “prison brides” and I all watched the slow-motion train wreck of the pandemic colliding with overcrowded and unsanitary prisons with dread. We knew there was nothing that would stop the spread of viruses in prisons. People incarcerated in most prisons, including Allenwood Low, slept in “dormitory-style” housing — with beds situated in close proximity to each other within low-walled cubicles. More than a hundred incarcerated people usually shared a common bathroom. 

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And, although the U.S. Bureau of Prisons had been specifically told by then-Attorney General William Barr to maximize its use of home confinement and other mechanisms during the pandemic, it broadly failed to do so. Of 10,940 requests for compassionate release from people in federal prison during the first three months of the pandemic, the bureau approved only 11.

Martin attempted to seek compassionate release on the basis of his severe allergies and possible asthma, but he was rejected both by the bureau and later by a federal court. (The government also called his offer to research a leprosy drug as a possible coronavirus treatment “delusional.” Later research by more respected scientific minds demonstrated that actually, he had very much been on the right track.) 

Martin did eventually contract Covid, but not until after he was fully vaccinated. His symptoms were thus relatively mild and he recovered quickly.

Rita’s boyfriend Charles, who had a strong case for clemency but had been inexplicably passed over by the Obama Administration, threw all his energy into seeking release from former President Donald Trump instead. That was what kept him going as the woes of the pandemic wore on. 

He had enthusiastic support from advocacy groups, public interest lawyers, community leaders, and even Alice Marie Johnson — a formerly incarcerated woman who won her freedom with help from Kim Kardashian. Johnson had Trump’s ear on clemency issues, and was able to make her case for Charles directly to the former president.

In November 2020, Charles received one of just a handful of sentence commutations issued by Trump, and became a free man.

A photo of me with Charles (left) and his son, Charles Jr. (right), the day after Charles was released from Allenwood.
A photo of me with Charles (left) and his son, Charles Jr. (right), the day after Charles was released from Allenwood.

During a brief window when the pandemic eased, Matt was transferred, as he and Sue had been hoping, to a minimum-security prison camp where there were fewer restrictions. He was eventually granted permission, under an expansion of pandemic protocols, to serve out the rest of his sentence from home. By 2022, he was out and living happily with Sue.

Nancy’s boyfriend, John, was also released but not without more headaches and frustrations. Instead of allowing Nancy to pick him up from the prison and take him to a halfway house, the warden at Allenwood insisted he be put on a Greyhound bus, a mid-pandemic journey that entailed multiple transfers. As it turned out, there were also delays and mechanical problems with buses during the days-long trip, leaving him alone and stranded at a stop overnight.

Nancy had been in contact with the prison for months about the trip and thought she would be able to pick him up. When she found out he would be required to be put on a bus instead, she lodged repeated to complaints to both the prison and to other government officials. The only response she got was a nasty email from the prison administration, threatening her with criminal charges if she persisted or interfered with this trip.

Nonetheless, when John called her collect (he had no other options) while he was stranded and in desperation, Nancy plunged in and tried to sort out his travel plans. She ended up with $300 in phone bills.

I thought about all the times I had stuck my neck out for Martin but without the same retaliatory response. Being a white journalist, even a nominally disgraced one with an incarcerated boyfriend, I was treated like a person with credibility by corrections workers — unlike many of the “prison brides.”

And Martin, of course, was officially released from Allenwood to a New York-area halfway house in May; a friend picked him up at the prison and Tweeted about it.