On Monday, an attorney representing an inmate in the Neuse Correctional Institution in Goldsboro sent a letter to the prison’s superintendent and the N.C. Department of Justice threatening to sue if she was not permitted to marry her fiancée by June 13. 

According to the letter, sent by Elizabeth Simpson of the Durham-based Carolina Justice Policy Center, Sandy Dowell was informed earlier this month that the prison’s head chaplain “did not want to approve the marriage request because it was ‘same sex’ and had never been done in North Carolina prisons before.” 

The state Department of Public Safety did not confirm by press time whether a state prison has approved a same-sex wedding since gay marriage became legal in North Carolina in 2014. 

Neuse CI’s “Guidelines for Marriage Requests” require couples to “attend four premarital sessions with an ordained minister” and obtain the approval of the superintendent and the assistant superintendent of programs. Six guests can attend; no cameras are permitted. After the ceremony, the newlyweds are allowed a fifteen-minute visit.

The guidelines also specify that the “entire processing time for a marriage” at the prison “may take up to four months.” 

“We started in November. Here it is May. We have yet to be approved,” says Amanda Marriner, Dowell’s fiancée, a former prisoner who lives in Durham. “It’s just being passed around. It’s like, we’ve been patient.” 

On November 26, according to the letter, Marriner and Dowell both wrote to Superintendent Morris Reid asking for permission to marry. Reid never responded. Nor did he respond to repeated follow-ups in writing, voice messages, and when Dowell spoke to him on prison grounds. Then, on May 4, the letter says, Dowell was told that the prison wanted nothing to do with a same-sex wedding.  

An official at Neuse CI said Monday that he was not authorized to comment. The DPS did not respond to a request for comment on the demand letter by press time. 

Dowell and Marriner have been together since March 10, 2003, Marriner says. They were housed in the same dorm at the North Carolina Correctional Institution for Women, both serving lengthy terms for second-degree murder. Dowell had been sentenced to life for the 1992 killing of her roommate, with whom she was romantically involved; Marriner was serving sixteen years for the 1999 shooting death of her live-in boyfriend. 

In 2015, Marriner was released. After that, she says, Dowell grew distant. She’d previously had a longtime prison girlfriend before who’d gotten out and left her. Eventually, Marriner says, they broke up. 

But after a year apart, they reconnected last June. “I said, ‘That year of silence—you’re the only person I want to be with,’” Marriner says.

By October, Marriner was back on Dowell’s visitors list. By November, they were engaged. 

They’re getting married for love, Marriner says, but also to get practical benefits. 

As Dowell’s wife, Marriner will get to attend her next parole hearing in 2021—which, as an ex-offender, she wouldn’t otherwise be able to do. If Dowell is paroled, Marriner can be part of her home plan—again, something she likely wouldn’t be able to do otherwise. And as long as Dowell is in prison, Marriner will be able to call and get medical information if she gets sick or has to go to the hospital. (Dowell has COPD.) 

Marriner believes prison officials are dragging their feet about the wedding because of “homophobia” and because they don’t want to be trendsetters. 

The state is in the process of converting Neuse CI to a men’s prison, Marriner says, which means Dowell will eventually get moved. So if the prison drags things out long enough, Marriner suggests, the superintendent of the next facility will be the one responsible for approving the prison system’s first same-sex wedding. 

 “Both Sandy and Amanda went to prison after heartbreaking relationships,” Simpson says. “It is a testament to their resilience that they have learned to trust and love again. They deserve to get married, and it is their constitutional right to do so.”

Contact editor in chief Jeffrey C. Billman at jbillman@indyweek.com. Additional reporting by Cole Villena.

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