SAVE the date. Imprisoned serial killer Charles Manson is slated to marry his 26-year-old future wife Afton Elaine Burton — known to the 80-year-old murderer as “Star”— in a blockbuster of a twisted love story.
The news of the couple’s pending nuptials has shocked the world, but broadcast stations showed the Kings County, California, marriage licence issued to the couple on November 7. They have 90 days to get married and are expected to wed at the prison next month.
The revelation has raised questions about the process of prison marriages, conjugal visits, and the weird world of love and matrimony behind bars. While many non-violent prisoners are not allowed basic freedoms like ease of movement, a varied wardrobe or access to certain books, one of the most reviled criminals in American history is being allowed to exchange vows with a young follower while in the clink.
The current legal framework surrounding prison marriages has roots in a number of US Supreme Court decisions. The court found in the 1978 case Zablocki V Redhail that inmates have a constitutional right to marry in prison, and that rules impinging on that right violate the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause.
The Supreme Court built on Zablocki in a 1987 decision, Turner V Safley, finding that a Missouri regulation requiring prisoners to get their prison superintendents’ permission to get married violated their constitutional rights. As such, there is very little legal recourse the California prison system can turn to if it were to attempt to stop Manson from taking a wife.
But it can bar prisoners from consummating a marriage, as it appears will be the case for Manson, because prisoners serving life without parole do not get “family visits”, also known as conjugal visits.
Manson was sentenced to death in 1971 in the murder of Sharon Tate, who was pregnant and married to film director Roman Polanski at the time. He was also charged with the deaths of four house guests and the separate murders of Leno and Rosemary LaBianca in August 1969, according to Rolling Stone. When California abolished the death penalty in 1972, Manson’s sentence was converted to life in prison. The state has denied his requests for parole 12 times.
The Manson marriage would not be the first instance of serial killers getting hitched while behind bars. The so-called Hillside Stranglers, Kenneth Bianchi and Angelo Buono, both got married while serving prison sentences for the killing of 10 girls in California during the 1970s, according to ABC News. So did “Night Stalker” Richard Ramirez while he was on death row in California for murder in 1985.
In other words, no matter how strange, wrong or rare it may seem to a layperson, lockup marriage isn’t unheard of to people familiar with the prison system. But it still often requires someone who is serving time for committing a crime to convince a pen pal, acquaintance or other sympathetic person to take the plunge, or manipulate them into thinking they are in love. Manson fits that profile, as he was famous for forming a “family” of people who killed for him and carried out his criminal desires.
Psychologist Elaine Aron, the author of The Highly Sensitive Person in Love, told ABC that “[m]any people in jail are sociopaths and they’re very good at manipulating people”. The New York Times found in 1995 that 544 New York State prison inmates married that year, out of 68,000 total in the system.
Reverend Starlene Joyner Burns provides tips on how to get married to prisoners on a section of her website called “Weddings Behind Bars”.
“Think creatively and let your imagination run wild until you find something that both of you shared and enjoyed together that can be symbolised through words, song, body language, or touch,” she wrote.
“Get your partner to participate in this creative process. Just because he/she is in lock down does not mean that he/she has to be disconnected.”
But Burton and Manson might want to tamp back any expectations of a gala affair. They will only be allowed 10 guests as well as an officiant to preside over the wedding, and it will be held on a set monthly date most likely in a visiting room. “It’s not very spectacular,” Rev Edwin Muller, who has officiated weddings at New York’s Eastern Correctional facility, told The Atlantic of prison marriages. “I don’t recall flowers.”
That lack of romance could impact a couples’ marriage, according to the US department of health and human services. “Married men in prison reach the national 50% divorce rate much more quickly than do men in the general population,” it wrote in a report on incarceration and families.
Despite these sobering statistics, Burns believes a prison wedding can be a fulfilling opportunity for two people who love one another. “So ladies, don’t go out and buy the most revealing dress you can find, because bare skin must be covered,” Burns advises. “You cannot bring a bouquet, music, cake, gifts (other than the ring), or camera.
“Costume jewelry will set off the alarm, as well as, clothes with metal beads and high heel shoes with nails. You can still be beautiful without the glitter and exposed skin.”
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