Fiancée of N.C. inmate says jail warden won’t approve same-sex marriage

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DURHAM, N.C. (WNCN) – A North Carolina couple plans to sue the state if they are not allowed to tie the knot by mid-June.

Attorneys for Amanda Marriner and Sandy Dowell sent a letter Monday to the superintendent of Neuse Correctional Institution in Goldsboro, where Dowell is currently incarcerated, which threatened a lawsuit if the prison does not permit the couple to marry within 30 days.

Carolina Justice Policy Center associate director Elizabeth Simpson learned of the relationship’s roadblocks from a mutual friend of Marriner.

“My first reaction was ‘That’s outrageous.’ The Supreme Court has clearly held that people have the right to get married, regardless of their sex, and if the North Carolina prisons are violating that right, then they need to be held accountable,” Simpson said.

“They’ve been together for 16 years and they love each other very much. Being separated is very hard, and I think this is a way to say to their friends, their family, their pastor, that they’re dedicated to each other and they’re committed, and they want to make their relationship legalized.”

Same-sex marriage became legal in North Carolina in 2014. Inmates are not allowed to marry while both are behind bars, but an inmate can submit a marriage request to wed someone who is not incarcerated.

Simpson’s letter to the Department of Justice claims the Neuse Correctional Institution chaplain told Dowell the prison “did not want to approve the marriage request because it was same sex and had never been done in North Carolina prisons before.”

A spokesperson for the Department of Public Safety’s Adult Corrections Division told CBS 17 by email Tuesday morning, “We will have something for you as soon as possible as we are working on this.”

The North Carolina Department of Corrections “Handbook for Family and Friends of Inmates” states:

Marriage requests are reviewed and approved by the prison facility superintendent. All Division of Prisons requirements and legal requirements must be met to marry. Both the inmate and fiance must consent to the marriage in writing. If the inmate or fiance has been married before a verified copy of the divorce papers must be submitted.

Custody or housing restrictions can make it difficult or impossible to complete the paperwork requirements. The Department of Correction does not assist inmates in meeting the legal requirements. Facilities will not transport an inmate from the confines of a prison for the purpose of obtaining a marriage license. When marriage requests are approved, the inmate and fiance can consult with a minister or a religious counselor.

For more information contact the chaplain at the prison facility where the inmate is housed.

Marriner proposed to Dowell in October 2018, 15 and a half years after their first date, while both were incarcerated for second-degree murder convictions. Marriner served 16 years for the death of her live-in boyfriend, Ashley Lane, in 1999.

Dowell and Glen Allen Irvin pled guilty in 1992 to the murder of their third roommate, Shannon Newman. Irvin was released from prison in 2004, while Dowell remains incarcerated with a parole hearing scheduled for 2021.

The couple submitted its marriage request to prison administrators in November. Attorney Elizabeth Simpson said the processing time typically takes four months, according the prison’s guidelines. After six months and repeated requests, including the presence of Marriner’s pastor during visitation for premarital counseling, Simpson decided to send the letter.

Spousal benefits would permit Marriner to attend and participate in Dowell’s parole hearing. She would also be able to get medical updates if Dowell were to get sick, and they would be allowed to live together if Dowell receives parole. There are restrictions for where and with whom parolees can live.

Marriner and Dowell talk on the phone every day and they see each other every weekend.

“We get two hours, and there’s always so much to talk about,” Marriner said.

“She’ll tell me what’s going on in the prisons, how things have changed. A lot of our mutual friends are in there, she’ll tell me about that.”

Marriner said she has changed a lot in the two decades since her arrest, conviction, and incarceration. 

“When I went in, I was a spoiled, conceited, conservative person. I judged a lot of folks, and when I went in, I met all of my judgments. I saw that there was no reason to judge them. They were just like me, and a lot of them had more moral and ethics than I did,” she said.

Marriner is now employed by a non-profit and works with people she describes as marginalized and dealing with barriers.

She met Dowell shortly after arriving at the North Carolina Correctional institution for Women. Her fiancee said there was something distinctive about “Amanda Marriner” on the list of names available in the prison commissary.

“I kept to myself. There was one table I always sat at, and she asked if I wanted to play Parcheesi. So we started playing Parcheesi, watching TV, always hanging out, and we got to be good friends. Her girlfriend kept accusing her of being with me, and she was like, ‘it’s not like that,'” Marriner said.

The accusations from Dowell’s then-partner persisted.

“Sandy finally looked at me and said ‘Why am I not with her?’ She said ‘Look, I like you as more than a friend, do you like me as more than a friend?’ She said she felt like we were flirting back and forth with each other, and I said ‘I do’, and so that was March 10, 2003. We’ve been together ever since.”

Simpson said the couple deserves to have their marriage approved.

“They entered prison under heartbreaking circumstances. They had heartbreaking relationships, and it’s  a testament to their relationship with each other that they have trust enough to actually take that step and want to get married again,” Simpson said.

Her demands have a deadline of June 13. If the marriage is not approved by the prison, Simpson will file a lawsuit on behalf of the couple.

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