Julia Lazareck, president of Friends and Family of Incarcerated Persons (FFIP) interviewed Caroline Giammanco, author, advocate and speaker. Caroline worked in the prison system as a teacher, and is in a prison marriage. She has a lot of information to share about the prison system and what it’s like being married to someone who is incarcerated.
Listen to the interview here:
“There’s a lot of ramifications that come with incarceration and there’s so many of us that are affected that I think we need to stop accepting this mantle of shame.”
Transcript: (edited for readability):
Caroline: My story starts when I was a kid and my dad was a Deputy Sheriff and I grew up around the courthouse and the Sheriff’s Office. As I got older I went to college and received a degree in Political Science and then I started teaching. I am certified to teach both English and Social Studies and mainly teach English. I was a public school teacher for quite a few years and then when the recession happened, my school district lost a lot of it’s a population and they had to cut down the number of staff that they had. Since I was the last hired at my school I was the first to go. So, I applied through the State of Missouri to teach in the prison system, and it took about a year for that to come about. I interviewed for a job at the South Central Correctional Center and I ended up teaching the GED program to students there at a maximum security men’s prison for two and a half years.
That’s where I met my husband, Keith Giammanco. He was my inmate employee. Our friendship just started right from the first moment that we saw each other. And he had a very intriguing story. He had made national headlines when he had been committing this crime spree. He had robbed 12 banks in St. Louis using notes.
My writing career actually began with writing Bank Notes: The True Story of the Boonie Hat Bandit, which told Keith’s story.
He hadn’t ever spoken to any reporters or told anybody his story and 90% of what was in the book, even his own family didn’t know about, because he’s just been very private and quiet during the time that he was committing his crimes
So that’s what actually got me started writing and I also became very active in battling the corruption that was within the prison system that I had encountered. Literally from the first day that I started working there. I was warned when I did my pre-hire drug screening by the officer who did the tests, that people would tell me that I needed to be aware of the silver tongue devils, the inmates who would try to manipulate me and would do and say things that they shouldn’t. And he said that, “I want to tell you right now, you’re going to have to be just as careful with your co-workers because they’ll do the same thing.” And he was absolutely right, unfortunately. And so my second book, we can talk about later, it’s called Guilty Hearts: The World of Prison Romances and it talks about inmate family relationships.
My third book came from my own experiences. It’s called Inside the Death Fences: Memoir of a Whistleblower.
It tells my own experiences of the corruption that I faced while working there at the prison and also what I have done since I left the prison in 2013 to fight for reform for the system. Nobody is safer when our prisons are so dysfunctional.
The biggest fight is to change the expectations. We’re undermining the job of custody when actually the job of custody is supposed to be also, not just punishing people, the punishment is that they’re incarcerated; the job of every member of the Department of Corrections (DOC) should be making sure that those inmates are more successful when they get out on the outside, because otherwise our communities are less safe if they haven’t been rehabilitated. And so I think that that’s one of the things that people need to understand is that there are a large number of people who would actually do a good job. They’re not bad people in and of themselves, but they have misunderstood what it is that they’re supposed to do when they put on that corrections uniform.
Julia: Thank you for sharing. What do you think that loved ones on the outside, family members, what are things that we can do? Do you have any suggestions?
Caroline: I’m one of those loved ones on the outside, too. My husband is still incarcerated, so I know what it’s like to be an employee and I also know what it’s like to be a family member of an incarcerated person. I think that the most important thing that family members need to do is to start being a political voice. There are about 2.2 million people incarcerated in the United States and millions more that have been incarcerated and we’re this silent feature in society. Too many people stay in the shadows. They’re ashamed about the fact that their loved one’s either in prison or has been in prison or, and I’m not saying that you should be proud that your loved one broke the law. It’s just that I think that society tends to discount us and treat us as though our voice isn’t as important. We’re a voting block out there, too, should we choose to be. I think that we need to start becoming more vocal to our elected officials and start voting more on what they are going to do to serve our needs. Not just are they Democrat or Republican? But each individual candidate needs to be aware now that fixing what’s wrong in corrections and addressing our family’s needs is important, too. Because there are literally millions of us out here.
I think that’s the first thing, and I think that that all starts with overcoming the fear. I know there are so many inmate families who will say that their loved one is mistreated in some way or not getting medical care that they need. They’re afraid to say anything because, “Well it will just make it worse on our loved one,” and my husband Keith and I have found that to be actually the opposite. Not that he gets preferential treatment, but because I am loud and in the public eye and refuse to back down, Keith has never been punished because of me speaking out. And I think if we all start shining lights and stop cowering to the fear, then we just have to be willing to face those fears and get past those and speak up for our loved ones.
Number one, our guys are already incarcerated and if we feel the need to speak out, if we’re already complaining about something, things are already bad. I think that’s the biggest thing that family members have to realize is that it’s okay for them to speak up for their loved ones.
Julia: I think what you’re saying is good information for people to remove the fear and to talk about it and to make calls. Let them know that there’s somebody on the outside that’s watching.
Caroline: I also think it’s important that we not just limit it to contacting the prison system itself. So many people will say, “Well I talked to constituent services and they said there wasn’t anything that can be done.” We are the ones that advocate for our loved ones. Don’t just assume that if you call the warden or you called constituent services or you talk to the housing unit manager, that that’s enough. You need to get outside eyes, especially legislators and let them know what’s going on. The more that legislators and politicians hear problems about the Department of Corrections (DOC), the more they’re going to finally say, “Okay, we’ve got to do something about this.” Legislatures may say, “Well, now we don’t have direct oversight over the DOC.” Well, maybe they don’t have direct oversight over the day to day operations of the prison, but they do hold the purse strings.
The DOC doesn’t get any money unless the legislature votes for it, so that’s an important hammer that they hold over the head of the DOC. So that’s important. Also, contact the Governor who is directly above the DOC. I think it’s important to not think that calling the warden is sufficient; you have to have outside eyes looking at this.
Julia: One of the things though, when I’m talking to people that have never been involved in politics or are very political is, how do you make that first step? How do you know who to contact, who your representatives are and how to contact them the best way, and what do you say?
Caroline: In Missouri, and I’m sure in other States you can search Missouri House of Representatives or Missouri State Senate and their website will come up. On that website, you can go to the directory of members and I know there’s a legislator look up tool in Missouri where you can type in your address and it will tell you exactly who your legislators are. I didn’t just focus on who my direct legislators were; I took the time to go to the State Capital, go door to door and meet as many legislators as possible. I have friended them on Facebook. I know that they won’t always speak out and make comments on Facebook because it’s a public forum, but they are seeing it and I know that they’re seeing what I post about the prison system because when I run into them in person, they will talk to me about it, that they saw these things happen and also they get to know me as a person and they no longer see me as just a prison wife; I’m Caroline. And I think it’s important to start making those personal connections with legislators because they’re really there to work for us.
They have taken on a public servant role and they’re there to hear what our needs and concerns are and they’re there to work for us to solve these issues. So I think that that’s the first thing to do is to start getting to know these public officials, so that you have somebody who will go to bat for you.
Julia: Are there any other events or anything that you go to? You said that you went to the State Capital, but how do you keep in touch otherwise?
Caroline: I keep in contact with them through email if there’s something that needs to be addressed. There was a news article on one of the television stations out of Columbia, Missouri. The story was about an inmate who they said had escaped, but he was actually on work release working at the State fairgrounds and had been found a short distance from the fairgrounds with severe head injuries. The head injuries were so severe that he was taken to the hospital and had remained there for days. So something happened to that guy and that’s what the story was about. And there were DOC current and past employees who were there saying ugly things. So some of us took screenshots of those comments and I wrote up an email and sent it out to several legislators and said that this is unacceptable. The DOC employees should not be able to say these things. There should be some kind of ramification for them openly hating inmates.
And one of my comments that I made in my email was that, “If an employee can be fired for loving an inmate, then employees should be able to be fired for hating inmates too. Because that in no way rehabilitates an inmate. If there’s somebody who thinks so poorly of inmates in general, that whatever happens to them they deserve…that’s not rehabilitative”. And that’s what our tax dollars are paying those people to do, is to rehabilitate. And so I sent out an email to them and I got several positive responses in return. You just have to let legislators know that you’re out there and you’re watching and that you’re expecting them to serve the interests of the people.
Julia: I think that’ll help a lot of people that do want to get more involved, that do want to help their loved ones but really don’t know who to talk to or what to do. So, having experienced that yourself and sharing it, it’s going to help a lot of people that do want to do that. And if we do want to make change in the world, we do want to change the prison system, then it is going to take all of us. So I really appreciate that part.
I’m going to change for another topic. Going to your relationship with Keith, you were saying that you worked in the prison and, I know from our conversations here, you’re not there anymore. As much as you want to share to your story or even refer to parts of your book if you want, of what happened and where you are now and how you guys got married. Can share that?
Caroline: He’s a good person who, for a short time, had poor judgment in a time of stress. I met Keith when he interviewed to be my inmate tutor in my classroom. He was intelligent and articulate and immediately we were able to talk at ease with each other. And both of us had this sense, that in whatever capacity, we didn’t know what the other one’s personal relationship life was like. It was just this feeling that both of us needed to have the other one in our universe, as friend, coworker, whatever. And as time went by, we had worked together for a year when Keith finally told me that he loved me and I knew that there were a bunch of reasons why it would complicate our lives, but I kept coming back to the same realization that if I went back into my classroom and if I lied and said that I didn’t love him, because I knew that I did, that if he walked out of my life, I would be devastated.
And so we’ve just been a team. We were a team before that and we already looked at each other as partners. And being able to know that the other person stood by us and truly had our best interests at heart, made it a whole lot easier. Just makes life easier knowing that you’ve got that someone in your life who’s there for you. Well, some people would think that it must be really hard to have a prison marriage. There are structural issues, like he can’t be home, things like that that are problems. But as far as our relationship, being married to Keith is extremely easy. It’s not hard at all to love him or to receive love from him. We’re just eager to have him where he’s actually at home.
Julia: It’s interesting. It’s something that a lot of people don’t think about or even don’t understand. You’ve met somebody that was incarcerated and fell in love with them and married and you’re actually recently, the fourth person that I spoke into that this has happened to, and for different reasons, waiting for their loved one to come home, their husband or fiancé. It’s not as uncommon as people might think, but it’s something that’s really hard for people to understand. Is there some way that it can be explained to somebody on the outside that hasn’t experienced this?
Caroline: When I first had a conversation with my sister about this, she at first said, “Well, it’s not the most intelligent thing you’ve ever done.” I said, “Well, you don’t know Keith, so I understand your hesitation.” And we talked for a little bit longer and she goes, “Well, as long as you’re happy.” And then she said that her husband would be a harder sell though. And I looked at her and I said, “That’s just it. I’m not selling anything. Our relationship is not dependent on your approval or anybody else’s approval. So I hope that in time you see that this is a good thing, but it’s not going to impact my relationship one way or the other regardless of how anybody else feels.” And I think that kind of set her back because people think that, “Oh, all we have to do is apply pressure and this woman will break up with whoever it is she loves.”
I also experienced some of that from my own children. I told them flat out, “You’re not going to tell me to cut out part of my heart so that I can keep another part of my heart. That’s not the way it works. I’m going to love all of you. And even if you don’t accept that fact, if you decide to close me out of your life, I’m still going to love you. And you can’t change that either. Just accept the fact that this is my life and I’m making my own decisions.” It’s not just an inmate situation, although that adds another dynamic to it because there’s such a stigma and such a hatred towards inmates in general, but because everybody who’s an inmate is obviously a monster, that’s what we’re told. But that’s not true. It’s the same as there are a lot of people who date someone that their family members or friends don’t think they should be dating or marrying on the outside. But that’s not for anybody to make that call because people make their own choices.
So, I don’t know if there’s really a good way to explain it to anybody. My way of explaining it to people is, “That’s fine if you don’t want to understand it. It doesn’t affect our relationship one bit.” And I had actually a coworker last year tell me, that because she had had a string of bad relationship that she was going on about how, “He’s probably just manipulating you,” and this, that, and the other thing. And I looked at her and I said, “I’m sorry that you have had some really poor marriages. I’m sorry. But your bad experiences don’t have any impact on my husband’s character or the strength of our relationship.” And she was kind of stunned and looked at me and she said, “I want to apologize.” She said, “I really did attach all my baggage to your life and you’re right. My experiences have nothing to do with your experience.”
I think that another thing that people do is: my brother disowned me whenever he found out that Keith and I were in a relationship and I had a couple of people mistakenly tell me, “Oh well it’s just because he loves you and he doesn’t want you hurt.” In my brother’s case, that was just looking for a way to make himself feel superior, and I never faulted him for any of his relationships. At times when people had criticized him, too, for who he married. I had always stood up for them and I found it really interesting that he wasn’t capable of doing the same thing. I just think that it’s a test of someone’s character to see how they react to somebody else having the audacity is living their own life.
Julia: When somebody is incarcerated or when you’re dealing with the prison system, everybody has their own ideas and in there sometimes people just walk away because they just don’t understand and it’s really hurtful.
Caroline: Oh yeah, I’ve lost a lot of people. Keith has lost a lot of people in his life, but we’ve also gained a lot of people who are supportive of us and I think that that means a lot to us. I know that we truly value any kindness that somebody displays towards us. When you go through a situation like this, you definitely start appreciating when people are nice, when they stand by you and support you, because that’s when you really learn who it is that’s on your side and who really loves you. Because my sister, for example, I think she still fears that things won’t go well, she would have that same fear if I just married somebody off the street. You know what I mean? So because any relationship potentially could go bad and I can understand, because she knows that I’ve been hurt in the past, so she doesn’t want to see me hurting the future. That’s natural and that that’s a common thing. But she has gotten past thinking that just because Keith is in prison that it’s a bad deal.
People can come around. I think that the longer that they see that, “Hey, we’re actually thriving as a couple, our relationship is a living, breathing thing. It’s not like we’re living in suspended animation.” A lot of people are realizing, “Wow, yeah, they’re the real deal.” They get this. There are other people who admire us because of the adversity that we’ve overcome and our marriage is so strong and our relationship is so strong. While there have been losses, there have also been incredible gains and the people that have stuck with us, we know we truly can count on and I think that those are important lessons that people need to learn, because a lot of people have fair weather friends. It’s when the chips are down and things aren’t so easy or so comfortable, that you find out who really cares.
Julia: How did you guys keep your relationship strong and is there anything you can share with somebody who does have a loved one that’s incarcerated that might be able to learn from you or do some of the things that you’re doing?
Caroline: I think communication is really important. Also understanding the nature of the situation that our loved one is living in. I think that I have, in a sense, an easier time at being able to do that because I had been past those visiting room walls and I know what the prison itself is like. Working in there is not the same as having to live in there day in and day out; I at least have a better vision of what it is that he’s dealing with as an inmate. The behaviors that happen inside and just even what the physical buildings are like. I think that letting them talk and vent is extremely important and sometimes it’s not always fun to have your two conversations that you’ve got to have on the phone that day, 95% of it taken up with him complaining about something, but if he doesn’t complain to me about it, he might blow up on the inside and he knows that it’s safe to talk to me and the next day he might say, “I’m really sorry that I spent all of our time talking about this ridiculous stuff. It really wasn’t all that important,” but at that moment he needed to talk about it.
I also think it’s important to not being a doormat to anybody, that’s not what I’m saying at all. You have to not be selfish and expect even equal time always, in every conversation, because there’s just a lot of stuff that goes on in prison that is not pleasant and they need some place that they can talk about it, that safe for them, that they’re not going to worry is going to result in a fist fight or being written up because you can’t just pop off to somebody else in there without there being consequences. You have to have some place to be able to talk about feelings that you’re going through or the issues that are irritating you at the moment just so they have that release valve for the pressure.
I’m also not saying that it’s okay for guys to yell at you or cuss you out. That’s not what I’m talking about at all. Keith never has done that to me ever. He’s always respectful, but they have things going on in their lives that the rest of us can’t truly comprehend because we’re not living in those situations. And it’s the same time the guys have to understand that things aren’t as easy on the outside as what those guys think that they are. We might have freedom and we may not be incarcerated, but we have the weight of the world with all of these responsibilities of taking care of kids and paying bills and making sure that there’s a roof over our head and taking care of them and their needs. It’s not always easy here out here either, so I think the communication and understanding go a really long way in making it work.
Keith and I have both have a really strong connection. We share a sense of humor. We’re dedicated to each other. I can’t explain it any other way than that. It’s just we know to our very core, it’s like breathing, that work together and we’re a committed couple.
When I worked with the prison system, one of the seminars that they had us attend, the instructor said that the leading cause of success for inmates when they are released from prison is having a positive, strong family and friend network when they get out. Maintaining those bonds are what make it most likely that when an inmate gets out, they’re going to have success. Because if you’ve been in prison and you get out and you’re all alone, and society is already stacked itself against you, you can’t find a place to live, you can’t find a job, people automatically assume that you’re this horrible, terrible monster because you were in prison, your motivation for staying good is going to go away pretty quickly.
So after a while it gets to this point where it’s actually, it’s a better social environment if they don’t have anybody on the outside to go back to prison to commit another crime and go back to prison because at least there’s somebody in there because they’ve been in three, four times. That should be a cycle that we’re trying to break as a society and that the DOC should be trying to break, because we don’t want it to be more appealing for somebody to go back to prison than to be productive on the outside. I’ve had people ask me, and they will say “Well I’d like to send Keith a note or whatever, is there something I can talk to him about? What can I talk to him about?” And my answer is: you can talk to him about anything and everything except escape plans. I mean, you obviously can’t talk about criminal activity and you can’t talk about escape plans, but other than that he’s just a regular person. Talk to him about sports, talk to him about gardening and talk to him about your family, talk to him about whatever it is, politics, whatever it is you want to talk about.
People have this idea that they’re so limited on what they can talk to an inmate about, and inmates are fully functioning human beings. They want to talk about all the same things that everybody else wants to talk about. And the prison, unless it shows a clear safety and security issue for the institution, like I said, criminal behavior or escape plans, they’re not going to stop it from going through. I mean you can’t send pornography through or anything like that, but you know what I’m saying? Just talk about regular stuff and it’s going to be okay.
Every single book that I have ever written, I always have Keith provide feedback on what I’m writing. Every single manuscript that I’ve written has gone back and forth through that prison mail room several times before the book ever comes out. It’s not like we’re doing something secretive or that they don’t know what we’re talking about because it goes right through their system. I think people get too worried. Speak up for yourself and encourage your family to speak up because it’s not helping you at all. Staying quiet hasn’t done a single thing to improve the situation at all. And do it in a respectful way, but it’s okay to be persistent and insistent, in a polite way and to hold officials feet to the fire and expect accountability on their part. That’s perfectly okay. We need to start showing them that a lot of people care. Those are our loved ones and we care and we’re not going to just stay silent because silence is what’s been killing us all along.
Julia: What I hear you saying is get out there and have a voice if you want change, if you want better conditions for your loved one, if you want to humanize the prison experience, have rehabilitation and improvement. You need to be a part of it and I think, Caroline, you’ve brought out some really good points. Getting rid of the fear, I think, is the hardest part because we live in a fear based world right now. We need to get rid of the fear and just move forward. Move forward in spite of the fear.
Caroline: If we get past the fear, not only will we feel better about ourselves because we’ve empowered ourselves; change can actually happen. Change isn’t going to happen as long as people are willing to just sit there and take it.
Julia: Let’s talk about your books. You’ve have Inside the Death Fences: Memoir of a Whistleblower , which we spoke about. You have Bank Notes: The True Story of the Boonie Hat Bandit, which is Keith’s story, for people that want to learn more about that and then Guilty Hearts: The World of Prison Romances, I think this will help our audience here. Could you tell us a little bit about Guilty Hearts: The World of Prison Romances?
Caroline: Guilty Hearts: The World of Prison Romances tells the story of 11 different inmates families, and how regular everyday normal lives were turned upside down when an incarceration happened. It tells the story from both the women and the men’s position. Some are wives, some are girlfriends, some are mothers, and there’s even a mother/daughter story where the husband’s incarcerated
The reason why I wrote it was because when I was going around doing Barnes and Noble book signings across the country for Bank Notes: The True Story of the Boonie Hat Bandit and I had a lot of people who at first would look at me really strange, like I must have antennas or something, and there must be something wrong with me to be involved with an inmate. And then if they would get to talking to me or if they’d read the story, they would go, “Oh, well you and Keith, you guys are okay. You guys are legitimate couple. But it’s those other women, they’re like the crazy cat lady. Why on earth would they be involved with an inmate?” And I thought, “I know a lot of compelling stories of really great people to love somebody who’s incarcerated. Their stories need to be told, too.”
While it’s only 11 scenarios, I’m hoping that it gives people a little different viewpoint to go, “Okay, wait a minute. Not everybody is some wet dishrag that has no self esteem, who’s involved with an inmate. We’re just regular everyday people that have something unconventional happen in our life.” It was written with the hope that people would see that Keith and I are not an anomaly, but actually there’s a whole lot of us out there who are just regular, hardworking, everyday people, but not all of them have the ability or, in some ways, courage, to do what I’ve done to become so public about it.
Not everybody’s wants to write books or do radio interviews. I wanted to put the humanity onto the inmates and the inmate families for readers so that they could see that we aren’t just monsters and only aren’t just wimpy, desperate women. That it actually takes a lot of courage and a lot of stamina to live the lives that we live and that we’re not looking for sympathy, but just a little consideration and not being sapped by people verbally or financially, by losing jobs, etc., or by having family members leave us in the dust. That maybe people need to think a little bit about who really should have the guilty heart. It’s called Guilty Hearts: The World of Prison Romances because the shame of our husbands or brothers or our fathers crimes gets put on us, too. We’re looked at like a discounted human being, too, just because there’s an incarceration.
So the question is: who should really feel guilty about how we’ve been treated? I say that it’s society who is so willing to find some way to feel superior to other people that they’re willing to throw stones at people who are already going through a really tough situation.
Julia: That’s a really good point because people don’t realize how tough it is. Losing a loved one is like a death. However, they’re still there, but you can’t see them or talk to them.
Caroline: Exactly. There’s no closure to it. And one of my friends, when she read the book, said, “I had never really thought about this before, but a person’s sentence is a lot like a death. The only differences, but neighbors don’t bring you a casserole.” In fact, most people don’t want to have anything to do with you after something like that has happened.
It’s a very isolating situation. That’s why I think it’s important for us as inmate families to start taking a more active role in politics and becoming that voting block because it’s important for our needs to be heard. It’s also important for society to realize that there’s a lot more of us out there. We’re not so much a fringe anymore. If you start looking at the number of people who are affected by incarceration, it’s actually pretty astounding. And I’ve told people before to think of how many people are in their social circle, whether it’s their friends, their family, their coworkers, their neighbors, people they go to church with, there’s a lot of people in your circle. Every one of those 2 million inmates has a circle too on the outside.
That serves to be a substantial number of Americans that are affected in one way or another, whether it’s financially because the husband’s in prison and now the wife is the sole support for the family. The emotional toll, the lost job hours because the stress gets to a woman, she just needs a mental health day, because she’s just too depressed because of what’s going on in life. The kids are affected. A lot of times kids will act out because of it or they have the idea that they’re just little mini me’s of, mom or dad went to prison and that’s what they’re going to end up being too and so then their life starts spiraling. Or the mom just isn’t home as much to spend time with the kids because she now has to work two jobs.
There’s a lot of ramifications that come with incarceration and there’s so many of us that are affected that I think we need to stop accepting this mantle of shame. When we haven’t done a single thing that was wrong. I didn’t commit crimes. You didn’t commit crime. It’s okay that we love somebody who made mistakes. And I also tell people this too, because people will ask me at book signings, “Well how can you love an inmate? How can you love him after what he did?” Do you love people who’ve made mistakes? Do people love you even though you’ve made mistakes? Well, there’s your answer. Everybody makes mistakes. Some mistakes send you to prison. Other mistakes have other ramifications in life. It doesn’t mean we stopped loving each other. I think it’s important for us to stop living, like I said, under that mantle of shame and start saying, “Yes, this is the situation we’re in. We wish that they hadn’t committed crimes. We’re not saying criminality is okay. We have needs and concerns that need to be dealt with too and we’re not going to be in the shadows anymore.”
Julia: I appreciate your time and sharing and the information, it was so valuable, and I think it’s really going to help people that are going through it, and even people that haven’t been through it, to have a better understanding. Thank you for your time.
Caroline: Thank you so much for having me on. I hope it has helped people.
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