On Gretchen Ihrig's wedding day, she put her hair up and made sure her dress met the guidelines for the Westville Correctional Facility.
Her white and black dress had to be a certain length, had to have sleeves and had to be deemed modest enough for the facility. She brought along a receipt to prove her husband's wedding band cost less than $30, per prison guidelines.
Last June, Ihrig married Jason Ihrig, who has been serving a 40-year prison sentence since 2003 on a charge of possession of methamphetamine in excess of 3 grams with the intent to deliver, according to court records. His expected release date is June 2020.
Prior to the revision of the criminal code in 2014, state law called for people serving a Class A felony, such as possession of methamphetamine, to receive one day credit for each day they served in custody.
“At first, I think it was kind of crazy, but you can’t help how you feel about somebody,” Gretchen Ihrig said. “When it happens, it happens. I love him more than I’ve loved anybody. It’s kind of strange, but you find love in different places, you know? He makes me very happy.”
The Ihrigs are one of the few couples who choose to wed while one of the spouses is incarcerated. On average, there are about 12 marriages conducted each year at the Westville Correctional Facility. According to an Indiana Department of Correction population report for May, there were 2,525 inmates being housed at the facility.
The application process for inmates to seek marriage takes about three months, said Rod Kitchen, the volunteer and community service director for the facility. Part of the process includes having the spouse who is not incarcerated undergo a criminal background check.
The Indiana Department of Correction views marriage as a possible rehabilitative tool for offenders, according to the department’s policy about marriages.
There are restrictions as to whom inmates in Indiana can marry. Requests for marriages can be denied by prison officials if the inmate is requesting to marry another inmate or a staff member of the facility.
Before getting married, couples attend a daylong class that mostly focuses on the importance of communication in a marriage. Kitchen coordinates the class and said it’s usually lead by chaplains from the facility.
The actual ceremonies are officiated inside the facility by the LaPorte County clerk’s office. Kitchen takes photos of the couples who aren’t allowed to have other visitors attend the ceremony. The couples are responsible for paying the fee for the marriage license.
Unlike Hollywood movies, the Indiana Department of Correction does not allow the couples to “consummate” their marriage, according to their policies.
Incarceration can put a strain on marriages with research showing that the odds of getting a divorce increases if one of the spouses is incarcerated.
Sonja Siennick, an associate professor at Florida State University's College of Criminology and Criminal Justice, said the research has not pinpointed why the divorce rates increase for these couples.
Her research did not include couples who wed during the period when one of the spouses was incarcerated.
Siennick said research has shown couples who had a spouse incarcerated are more likely to report less love in their relationship, experience domestic violence and are at a greater risk to experience an affair.
Wendall Cornett, 39, was one of the offenders who also got married last June at the Westville Correctional Center. He said he's seen marriages in prison last a mere couple of months.
For those who have a spouse serving a longer sentence, it’s a significant commitment for them, Cornett said. He also said couples have to really know each other before they make the commitment to get married while one of them is in prison.
"Don't say nothing you'll regret later," he said. "Don't put it out there if you don't want it out there. You can't take a statement back."
Sitting in a conference room at Westville Correctional Facility, Jason Ihrig is wearing his khaki uniform, the same uniform he wore when he got married, as he explains that he had given up on romance until he met his wife.
He has never been married before, though he has two children from a previous relationship.
"Everything about this place wants to keep your mind inside this fence," he said. "It's important to think about the outside. If not, you'll get stuck in this place, you'll get institutionalized."
He started occasionally talking to his now wife when he would call a childhood friend. Gretchen Ihrig was friends with the couple Jason Ihrig was calling. The two had never met in person before.
Over the years, the relationship escalated to them talking by phone occasionally to daily phone calls. Gretchen Ihrig said she was getting out of a bad relationship at the time and credited Jason Ihrig with helping her cope through that time.
They mark May 14, 2013, as the date their relationship became official because that was the day Jason received a letter from Gretchen.
"I told him there is something about me and you, and I feel like we have a connection," she said. "We knew there was something there."
He called her that day to ask if what she had written was true. She told him it was all true.
Within a month, she visited him in person for the first time. At the time he was being held at Pendleton Correctional Facility. She remembers feeling a mixture of nerves and happiness. Their first visit was noncontact and they were separated by glass.
"I wasn't sure what I would say, not sure how it was going to go," she said. "We clicked. We just found something to talk about like on the phone. It was like having a best friend. He was my best friend. He still is."
He said he now takes into account that his actions in prison have a ripple effect on his family, which means he is on his best behavior. Anything that goes wrong can jeopardize their visits or phone call privileges.
Cornett met his wife, Gwen Cornett, when they were 17 years old through a mutual friend. They have been together since then and have a teenage daughter together.
Since 2014, he’s been serving a six-year prison sentence on charges of resisting law enforcement and receiving stolen property. He’s expected to be released this summer.
He said his wife has been through a lot with him. Last year, they finally decided to get married and didn’t want to wait any longer.
Gwen Cornett said she had always known her husband was the person she wanted to spend the rest of her life with. She knew he was ready when one day he mentioned marriage.
“If you really love somebody, it doesn’t matter where they are,” Gwen Cornett said. “It’s kind of different where we wound up getting married. If you truly love that person, it doesn’t matter where you end up.”
RELATIONSHIP MORE MENTAL THAN PHYSICAL
Now that they are married, Jason Ihrig is allowed to have contact visits with his wife. Still, those visits only consist of them holding hands and kissing. Gretchen Ihrig said some guards look the other way when her husband picks her up to say goodbye.
When their relationship started getting serious, Jason requested to be moved to the Westville Correctional Facility, which is a shorter drive for Gretchen, who lives in Elkhart. The couple also have scheduled calls and video visits throughout the week.
There is a charge for phone calls and video visits that are done through a Skype-like program monitored by the facility. The couple sort out the bills together to determine how many phone and video calls they can make.
Jason Ihrig said they try to be creative to have growth in their relationship. They read books together, mapping out how many chapters they will read each day, and then discuss what they've read at the end of the day. The latest mystery series they were delving into was "Odd Thomas" by Dean Koontz.
They also bond over working out. Gretchen Ihrig said her husband has become like her personal trainer who helps her figure out her exercise routine throughout the week.
Gretchen, who has been married twice before, said this marriage is simpler than others. Still, she said coming back from the in-person visits can be emotionally taxing.
"It takes a couple days to come out of it," she said. "We have a saying, 'Every day is a day closer (to when) he comes home.'"
Gwen Cornett, who lives in Warsaw, said she hasn't been able to visit her husband as much because of work. Within the past couple of months, her mother and grandmother died separately.
"It's actually been rough, and because of us being apart, it does make it harder," she said. "That's when communication comes in. He always let's me know that he's always there for me."
WAITING TO BE REUNITED
During each holiday, Gretchen Ihrig and her daughter put away a gift for when Jason comes home. The pile of gifts includes a T-shirt from Walt Disney World, a dictionary, candy from Valentine’s Day and a trimmer. On Christmas, they open his presents during a video call and then store them away for when he comes home.
Her bedroom includes handmade cards and crafts Jason has sent her as gifts. She has enlarged and framed photos taken during their visits.
Gretchen said they plan to stay in Indiana for as long as her husband has to serve out parole or any other requirements set by the Department of Correction. According to court records, her husband has an additional 10 years to serve on probation after he finishes his prison term.
They hope to one day move to Georgia, and they want to work together on remodeling homes.
Like the Ihrigs, Gwen Cornett said she and her husband plan on having a second wedding ceremony to share with family members.
Though Wendall Cornett previously has been incarcerated, Gwen said she thinks her husband has changed for the better this time. Wendall said he already was looking into securing jobs in anticipation of his release.
Jason Ihrig said he wants to gradually be released from prison by first being transferred to a work release program. He and his wife have talked about possible locations they plan to one day travel to, but he would be fine with going anywhere.
"We can walk around the park and that would be like going to the moon for me," he said.