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Does Same-Sex Marriage Law Apply To Prisoners?

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Does Same-Sex Marriage Law Apply To Prisoners?


Does Same-Sex Marriage Law Apply To Prisoners?

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Back now with Day to Day. When California legalized same-sex marriage a little more than a month ago, the state left things vague for one segment of the population, prison inmates. What happens when same-sex prisoners want to marry each other? As Nancy Mullane reports, California prison officials are working on that.

NANCY MULLANE: Standing beneath the massive dome inside San Francisco's City Hall, Claire Snider (ph) and Mickey Hall (ph) seal their marriage vows with tears and a kiss.

Unidentified Person #1: By virtue of the authority vested in me by the state of California, I now pronounce you spouses for life. You may kiss your spouse.

Unidentified Person #2: This one is crying.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MULLANE: In the past month, more than 1,500 same-sex marriages have been certified by the County of San Francisco alone. But, just north of the city, is San Quentin State Prison.

Lt. RUDY LUNA (Assistant to Warden, San Quentin State Prison): I don't know how, if we're going to allow it.

MULLANE: That's Lieutenant Rudy Luna. He's assistant to the warden. Every year he performs more than 200 weddings in the prison's visiting area between male prisoners and women from the outside. Now that same-sex marriages are legal, Luna says the prison's policy is unclear.

Lt. LUNA: Right now it says same-sex marriages, if someone comes from outside to get married. They haven't said the policy for inmate to inmate. That's not going to be accepted by too many people inside.

MULLANE: Ernest Morgan has served 21 years of a life sentence, and today he's considered an unofficial spokesperson for the inmates. Sitting on a bench outside his cell block, Morgan says the issue has come up.

Mr. ERNEST MORGAN (Inmate, San Quentin State Prison): And everybody came to the conclusion that if those two prisoners want to be together, then those two prisoners should have the opportunity to be married and be together. But, we're not sure how the state would stand on that.

MULLANE: Do you think anybody's going to try?

Mr. MORGAN: I'm - this is California, I'm most certain of it.

MULLANE: Terry Thornton is spokesperson for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

Ms. TERRY THORNTON (Spokesperson, California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.): We have no policy that would allow an inmate to marry another inmate.

MULLANE: But you don't have a policy that prevents it either.

Ms. THORNTON: That's correct. There's no policy at all regarding this.

MULLANE: There's no policy because up until now it hasn't been an issue. You see, California law prohibits proxy marriages. That means both parties have to be physically at the ceremony for there to be a wedding. And there aren't any prisons in California housing men and women together.

Ms. THORNTON: So, historically, inmates have not been able to marry inmates.

MULLANE: But now, if prisoners in the same prison apply for permission to marry, the California proxy law doesn't apply. So, state officials are scrambling to come up with a policy. They're concerned about security issues if two inmates marry. What about conjugal visits from one cell to another? And how would the rest of the prison population react? But those problems will have to be worked out, says gay-rights activist Eduardo Morales. He's director of a nonprofit in San Francisco that provides support to gay and bisexual men.

Mr. EDUARDO MORALES (Director, San Francisco Nonprofit): According to the court, it's a civil right for people of the same sex to marry. So, given that, then the rights need to be extended to the prisoners as well.

MULLANE: Morales says, ultimately, the question of inmate to inmate marriage may be decided in a court of law. A number of national gay and lesbian organizations contacted said they wouldn't comment on the issue right now. There is a concern any focus on the rights of prisoners to same-sex marriage could impact a November ballot initiative in California seeking to ban gay marriage altogether. For NPR News, I'm Nancy Mullane in San Francisco.

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