Dealing with Divorce in Prison


  • Having one spouse in prison can put pressure on a marriage.
  • Studies highlight the risk of your marriage when having a spouse in prison.
  • Going through a divorce while you are in prison puts you at a higher risk for mental health issues and depression.

Despite what some in society might lead you to believe, divorce is not, in fact, a crime. The act of ending an unhappy marriage through the divorce process is not legally punishable, in any stretch of the imagination. As many negative connotations people may have, in regards to the act of getting a divorce, they do not equate with breaking the law.

However, for those that have a spouse who is in jail, divorce can be something that you may be considering. It can be difficult for individuals who have a spouse in prison to maintain a healthy and engaged relationship during their incarceration.

The cases

There are many couples that can work through the challenges and persevere. For example, CNN highlighted three couples who are dealing with having one spouse in prison. The first couple, Jennifer and Brian McCook, are working through Brian’s incarceration.

The second couple, Ann Edenfield Sweet and her husband, attempted to work through her husband’s incarceration, and it wasn’t until he was released and they attempted to live a normal life did they divorce. They found that prison had changed them both, given all that she had to do to provide for their four children while he was in jail.

David Morales and Vicki Juarez are life partners, and before they got together, he already had done prison stints. After they had become involved, he received three DWIs and was sentenced to ten years in prison. Vicki has decided to stay with him and help him work through his issues.

These examples illustrate that while the difficulties of marriages to inmates may result in different outcomes, prison is not an automatic result in the ending of a marriage. However, many couples do not always follow down the same path.

The statistics

According to research at the College of Criminology and Criminal Justice at Florida State University, each year of incarceration increases the odds that an inmate’s marriage will end in divorce (before or after the inmate gets out of prison) by an average of 32 percent.

Even if they do get out of jail, research has shown that the marriage still is in danger. One study of Dutch men found that their odds of a divorce increased over a ten year period after their incarceration. The only thing that seems to protect these marriages is if they begin while one spouse is incarcerated. Studies have shown that the odds for a divorce do not increase if one spouse already is in prison when they take their vows.

In addition, the individual who exits prison is not always the same person who entered it. Studies have broken down the long-term effects of prison on married couples and have found that after prison time, it became more attractive to find another partner and easier for a spouse to leave the union. Furthermore, former inmates stated that there was less love in the relationships, more relationship violence, and more extramarital affairs with people who’d never been incarcerated.

Fault divorce

There are some states where prison sentences are actually grounds for a divorce. According to the Virginia Legal Aid Society, if your spouse was convicted of a felony, sentenced to more than one year in prison, and you do not live with your spouse after they are released, it can be listed as a reason for divorce and does not require a waiting period in the state of Virginia.

In the state of Pennsylvania, one spouse can seek a fault-based divorce if another spouse has had a jail sentence of two years or more for the conviction of any crime, according to the Pennsylvania Legal Aid Network.

Mental health

For those who are in jail, it can be a difficult moment in their lives, watching their spouse attempt to separate themselves from the commitment that the two of them made to one another. They can often lose hope in their futures and lose sight of their reasons to continue living. Mental health issues and depression are serious and very real problems for those incarcerated.

With more mentally ill individuals in prisons than in all state hospitals in the United States and suicide being the third leading cause of death in prisons, according to the Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law, it’s important to recognize the ramifications of removing a major staple, such as a spouse, from a prisoner’s life. The impact cannot be quantified, and those facing the stresses of divorce from inside prison should seek out all available resources to help them deal with the difficulties of the situation.

Many who have been to prison have stated that it had personally changed them, and while that is true for them, it can be false for others. However, with a relationship built around the support, comfort, and constant maintenance of having someone present in one’s day-to-day life, a prison sentence can be the breaking point that many relationships simply cannot take. The difficult, but honest, decision being made allows both spouses a better picture of their life moving forward, on both sides of the bars.

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