Robert is 45 and Jenee is 40. They've been married for nine years.
Jenee: We met in 2000 at a correctional facility where I was a corrections officer and he was an inmate.
Robert: I was standing there with my brother and a close friend and I looked at her and we kind of met eyes and I told those two, "That's gonna be my girl one of these days." They were just looking at me like, "You don't even know her name!"
Jenee: I just remember looking at him and feeling weird. It wasn't like, "Ooh, he's hot," it was like, "Huh, what was that?" Like a bolt of lightning hit me. But I knew that a lot of rumors centered around female corrections officers in male prisons. So given I felt some kind of vibe, I kept my distance. There was no discussion.
Robert: She wouldn't even talk to me at all!
Jenee: I addressed him as "mister." It was just orders, never any conversation or any friendliness. But we knew something was there, you know?
I have to ask the obvious question: What was his crime and did it scare you at all? I would think you'd be scared.
Jenee: His crime was second-degree manslaughter. It didn't scare me, knowing the person that I knew. I knew when I met him that there had to be a reason for his actions. I had access to the national database so I could pull up everything about him, and I did. I read stuff and in getting to know him, I discovered he was so consistent in who he was and what he said and how he behaved. He did some drug dealing when he was younger and things happened and someone tried to rob him and he shot the guy. He knew what he was gonna do, he knew what the consequences were, and he dealt with them, and the process assisted him in growing up a lot and developing who he is today.
I'm just surprised that didn't turn you off.
Jenee: I didn't think of it like that. I felt like the man did his crime and he's doing his time and he deserves a second chance.
Did you worry about it at all, Robert, being able to impress upon her that you were a different person?
Robert: Well, I've always been a truthful person. If you ask me, I'll tell you, no matter what the consequences are; all you gotta do is ask. Ninety percent of people ask me why I was in there and I tell them, but they don't believe it. Knowing me now, they don't believe that could've happened.
So how did your situation change enough for you to get together?
Jenee: I left. I got fired for something totally unrelated. When I left I sent back thank-you notes to five guys who were still there. A lot of times women are used to calm men down in the prison system, but I also gained a lot of wisdom from the guys. I just thanked them for being who they were and I wished them well in life. The lady in the mailroom got the letter for Robert and pulled him in and let him read it. It had my phone number in it and then she destroyed the letter. He remembered the number and took it to the prison chaplain and the chaplain let him call me.
Wait. Robert, you memorized the number from the note before it was destroyed?
Robert: Yes. Yep! [Laughs.]
So this chaplain, is that normal protocol for him to let you call somebody who used to work there?
Jenee: No. The chaplain knew I was a good person and I wasn't fired for anything of ill nature. He basically was friends with Robert and wanted Robert to have a good life and if Robert wanted to call someone — and that's the first time he ever asked to call anybody — he was gonna let him do it.
Robert: I called her twice. The first time was just to let her know that I had got the number and that I would be in touch with her later. The second time I called her, I [was going to be released] June the 13th, and I told her I wanted her to be with me on June the 14th. So from June the 14th, 2002, up until this day, we've been together.
Tell me about that first day you got to hang out outside of the prison.
Robert: She didn't know exactly where I lived, but I lived about five minutes from this station that was off the highway, so I told her how to get there. My mom took me there, and when I got out of the car, we kissed and off we went.
Ah! You kissed? Right away?
Robert: Yep, right away.
So did you really just spend every moment together after that?
Jenee: Well, at that point, my daughter was little, not even 3 yet, so I had a friend come for the weekend just so I could explore with him what we wanted to be. I didn't want to start something that, number one, I couldn't finish and, number two, introduce him to my daughter who'd get used to someone being around and then he's gone. So we had some really deep, intimate conversations about where we are in life, where we wanna go. He had made a mistake that cost him 10 years of his life; he wasn't looking to just play games. We just really bonded that weekend.
So how did he propose?
Jenee: He'd ask me every year on Valentine's Day and I said, "No. My dad told me not to get married until I was 30 because that's when I'd know I'd done everything I was gonna do in my young life and adulthood began." So I just kept telling him, "No, not yet. Not yet." And he's like, "We're gonna get married." So finally Robert, what did you do?
Robert: I took her out to dinner — her and my brother and my mom.
Jenee: It was Valentine's Day.
Robert: And I got down on one knee and I asked her to marry me.
What did your dad think of you marrying this guy?
Jenee: He doesn't know how we met. He thinks that I was at the gate and he worked with a company that came in for prison ministry. If he knew the truth, he wouldn't be here now. He's already prejudiced as can be.
Robert, did you have any fears about getting married again because you'd had a marriage not work out in the past?
Robert: Yeah, I felt like if I had to fight for it or it didn't feel natural, that I wouldn't ever do it again. But from the day we got together, it just felt natural, like I was supposed to be there, like this is where I belong.
What's been your biggest fight since you got married?
Robert: I used to drink a lot, the reason being I was beating myself up for things I'd done in the past and I felt like she deserved better. That was some of our biggest fights. She never knew why I was doing what I was doing to myself.
Jenee: And it wasn't so much a fight; I put up with it because I married him. He took the joy out of being an adult. I felt bad going to get a drink at Applebee's or something. So that's where I developed a momentary hate for him. I used to joke with him and say, "You're cheating on me with the bottle," because he'd be outside and I'd be like, "How much did you drink?" And he's like, "One." And I'm like, "Then why are there four in the bushes?"
So how did you guys resolve that?
Jenee: He got a DWI — actually a couple of them in a three-year period — and had to go to a class that's mandatory and it cost him a pretty penny, upward of $500, for that experience, but it changed him as a person. The classes he had to go to really changed him.
Did you get sober, Robert?
Robert: Yeah. I had to realize just because I had failed and made mistakes, I didn't have to stay there. Now I'm a business owner; I work for the city. I'm a supervisor there. Now she gets to see what I was like before I decided to turn to the bottle.
How long has it been since that was a problem?
Robert: Six years.
Do you fight about anything now?
Robert: The way I was raised, I've never seen my mom and dad fight, never. If they did have a disagreement, me and my brother were either taken to my grandparents' house or dropped off to spend a night with a friend. We never saw them have a disagreement so I don't believe in letting my frustrations be seen in front of my child.
Jenee: She doesn't see us fight and if we are mad at each other, we don't leave each other. You can be mad at me but if you leave this house, I'll kick your ass. You don't leave me. He'll go outside and smoke a cigar. We separate for a few minutes and then we come together. "You feel OK? You all right? OK, let's go to bed."
Speaking of bed, how has your sex life changed since you got married? Actually, first, I want to know how it was in the beginning because you had this long tension between you. Was it really exciting when you finally got to be together?
Robert: She couldn't breathe!
Jenee: Yeah, I have asthma and he would wear me out! Not only that, but I hadn't been with a partner since I had a child, so it'd been 2.5 years. I was like a new virgin and he was like, "Yes! Ready to rock!" We couldn't keep our hands off each other for a while, and then it kind of [subsided]. And then he started drinking right after we got married so for three years it was touch and go and then he had a health situation, his blood pressure elevated, and they prescribed a medication for the blood pressure and that did something to his erectile dysfunction. Now he doesn't take it every day so he's able to function sexually when he wants to, but for a long time we couldn't figure out why he couldn't. I went through that, "Am I ugly? Am I fat? What did I do wrong?"
Robert, what does that feel like to find out you have a choice to make like, "OK, am I going to be healthy or am I going to be sexual?"
Robert: At first it was devastating because that's how a man feels like a man, when he satisfies his woman.
Now you guys have it worked out?
Robert: Now she runs around the room!
Jenee: Given the fact that he had to kind of grow up in prison from 24 to 34, there were probably a lot of things in life he didn't experience, you know, sexually, and I gave him that freedom to express that. I was always open to any experiences he wanted as long as I was involved. So we did do a few things that he wanted to do outside of our relationship. I facilitated him having sex with one of my best friends; we've been to some swinger parties. Sex didn't work out there, it just didn't feel right for either of us. We utilize sex toys and we're into erotic novels and stuff like that. We keep a lot of things to ourselves, but I allow him to experience other things as well.
Were you feeling like you were trying to kind of ensure against infidelity by doing that? Like, "If I'm part of this and I'm facilitating it, he's not gonna go behind my back."
Jenee: No, that wasn't even my motive. My motive has always been friends first and as his friend — not his lover or his girlfriend, [but] as his friend — I wanted him to experience all that life has to offer and I was by no means going to stand in his way.
How do you not get jealous?
Jenee: I'm just not a jealous person. You don't get jealous with someone if you're secure with yourself.
Robert: It takes a lot of communication. Communication and trust.
How do you reassure her that everything is fine?
Jenee: He didn't need to!
Robert: There's a difference between me being with her and me being with somebody else. She not only has my heart and my mind, she's got everything else that goes with that. The other person, they're only getting that body for however long it takes for them to do what they gotta do and then it's over. With her, I want to cuddle and hug and kiss and lie there and go to sleep. With them, I want it to get done and go home.
Is this something you talked about right from the beginning?
Jenee: He expressed interest because we were friends. And he didn't have to say, "I don't mean this to hurt your feelings." I knew where his head was. He was my best friend I wanted him to have everything he wanted.
So you guys have been married for almost 10 years now. Congratulations! Any advice?
Jenee: My advice is to communicate.
Robert: That's exactly what I was gonna say!
What do you mean by that? People say that all the time but it always sounds like a vague idea to me. You mean what, like tell each other everything you're thinking?
Jenee: Nah, hell no! Just at the end of the night, decompress by saying, "What was the best part of your day today?" We got into a little rut where all I was talking about was my job and he was like, "Can we talk about something else? Like, how do I love you? Let me count the ways."
Robert: But you have to keep the communication open; you can't shut it down. Once you shut it down, other issues start coming up like mistrust and misunderstandings.
Jenee: Accusations of cheating.
Robert: If you don't keep that open line flowing, other things will follow, which could cause some severe damage.
Jenee: Should we tell her about the recent situation? We had a recent situation where I felt like his job was more important than me. He works at the city during the day and he's landscaping during the season until late at night and he's a limo driver on Fridays and Saturdays. I felt like I was never seeing him. I felt like I was secondary to everything.
So one day somebody caught my eye and I felt like, if my heart wasn't open, then I wouldn't have caught this person's eye. So we struck up a friendship and there was an interest there and I came back and I told my husband, "There's an interest here and I'm really thinking about it." He thought about it for a few days and he came back and said, "If this is something you really wanna do, you really wanna be with this guy, I'm gonna give you 30 days. Do whatever you gotta do. We'll get back together in 30 days and decide whether you want to stay with me and stay married or you want to let it go."
I was like, "Well, I don't want you to leave me. I don't wanna let you go. This is just something I'm thinking about. I haven't even done anything." I don't want to jeopardize my marriage for one thing just because I'm curious. It would've been different if they guy had a girlfriend and they were interested in a swap, then we could have a discussion, you know? But I just decided it wasn't worth my marriage.
I said, "The reason my attention fell on somebody else was that I really wanna spend time with you." So he rearranged his schedule. But I needed to communicate with him instead of letting him go do his thing. I needed to say, "Hey, you need to stop."
Wow. OK, one last question. Jenee, what would you think if your daughter brought home someone who had been in prison?
Jenee: I guess I'd have to do a background search on his ass. [Laughs] Hopefully he'll be honest with me and tell me straight-up what he was in there for and then I'll go do a background check. I would hope he wasn't in there for something like rape or assault on a female or killing his wife or something crazy like that, but my daughter is pretty feisty anyway. She's quick to dismiss people. She'll dismiss her friends for acting stupid. So the advice I've given her is just to be true to yourself. When that voice tells you it ain't right, it ain't right.
Robert: My advice to my daughter is that when you get interested in a boy, the first thing you do is see how he acts with his mother. If he has a good relationship with his mother, then he'll have a good relationship with you. If he argues with his mother, then he's gonna argue with you. If he shows a disrespect toward her, then he's gonna show the same thing toward you.