Melanie is a First Nations woman living in Alberta, Canada. She’s part of a Facebook group for family and spouses of incarcerated Canadians. MEL was introduced to her through Canadian Inmates Connect, a website dedicated to finding pen pals for inmates.
Will was an active member of the church in the Saskatchewan correctional facility when I met him. Though I don’t recall our first meeting — it’s very characteristic of me to be somewhere physically but to mentally be somewhere else — he would later tell me that we met when I was interviewing for a cashier’s position at the Salvation Army store in Prince Albert (the third-largest city in Saskatchewan).
Will had earned the right to work in public just a year before I met him. In some jurisdictions, when a prisoner has been moved to a minimum security institution they’re eligible for employment at a Salvation Army store. Will was enrolled in their pre-release job-training program at their store in Prince Albert. This was three years ago, in the fall of 2013—18 years after he had been convicted and imprisoned for murder.
Will was 24 when he was locked up. He was at a house party where he and another fellow got into a verbal argument, and — like many arguments that happen under the influence of alcohol — it quickly escalated. The next day he woke up in the hospital strapped to a bed. Tragically, the other man involved in the altercation was dead.
Initially when I started working at the Salvation Army store, my mindset was to keep my distance from the inmates. Just as good discretion. That was until one day my supervisor asked Will and I to set up the window display together. At first I was thinking, ‘Okay, you’re asking me to work with an inmate.’ But I didn’t say that aloud.
It didn’t take long for us to get to know one another. I was working at the store eight hours a day and much of that time was spent with Will in close quarters behind the glass display, taking the clothes off the displays and putting them in boxes and dressing them with new clothes.
Before that, I had been single for eight years. I’m a Christian, and though I’d had a few other Christian men take me out for coffee or to church, I never could get past the friendship phase. I had a habit of sabotaging the relationship before it ever became romantic.
I was two years old when my stepfather began sexually abusing me. My mother never stopped him. She would abuse me too, using anything from a hairbrush to a TV remote to high-heeled shoes. Had I not left home when I was 15, I’m certain my stepfather would have impregnated me. I left behind five sisters. I ended up in the child welfare system, and by 19 I’d become a prostitute.
At first, my relationship with Will was purely platonic, but even then I saw qualities in him that I really liked. He was a hard worker; he’d help people to their cars; he was always polite and he could tell what I was thinking. I’ve never been able to hide my emotions from him. It didn’t hurt that he was tall, well-groomed and has dark hair.
After a few months of getting to know one another, I gave Will my phone number in a folded piece of paper. I slipped it to him the way one would pass along a note in class. Before he took the note, he explained that someone from the prison would have to verify whether it was all right for him to call me. Which made me uncomfortable because I thought they could trace it back to the Salvation Army store and as a result, we could both be reprimanded.
Three weeks later I went to a payphone and called the prison myself. I didn’t give them my name until they explained that all they needed to know was whether it was okay for Will to call me. We kept our relationship a secret for six months.
There was something reassuring about beginning a relationship with someone who couldn’t just show up at my front door. It meant we could take things slowly. We exchanged letters; he wrote letters to my kids, and after some time he started helping us out financially.
This past year my family and I moved from Alberta to Edmonton. We’re not sure exactly how long it’s going to take for Will to get a transfer, so I thought about ending the relationship. The reality is that I wake up by myself and go to sleep by myself. Not having that immediate physical companionship can take its toll.
The scripture tell us that God sees all of our thoughts. A few months ago, before I’d confided in anyone that I was going to end my relationship with Will, my middle son, who was 17 at the time, told me about a dream he’d had the night before. In it we were all together in Saskatchewan at a Superstore, shopping like a normal family. For him the dream was very real. That helped me realize that after investing three years in this relationship, I shouldn’t be so quick to give up on it because of the distance.
Still, I’ve had my hesitations. I’m well aware that what Will did all those years ago is completely wrong. I went through a phase when I thought a lot about the individual that was murdered. But I also understand that we can’t throw people away. We can’t write them off. My own son has a criminal record and has been within a hair of ending up in the same position as Will. My other son who’s 18 has friends who’ve been stabbed or shot or have overdosed. I’ve taken him to a lot of funerals. But if we’re still here and we want to do better, we should be given that chance.
We don’t have an exact date of when Will is going to be let out. He’s up for parole, but we’re planning on getting married while he’s still in jail. Once he’s free, we’ll have a normal wedding with his dad and my kids and all of our friends. It’s going to be a huge culture shock for him — especially our first night together. He’s mentioned to me that he can’t fall asleep on a regular bed because he’s used to sleeping on a steel frame with a paper-thin mattress for the past 21 years. I told him we could sleep on the carpet until he’s more comfortable sleeping on a cushioned surface. Either that or we’ll have to buy a mattress that isn’t so soft.
— Melanie, as told to Andrew Fiouzi