Memoirs of a Prison Lawyer/Prison Wife, by Claudette Spencer-Nurse, is a love story. It is an improbable love story. It is a love story that has defied the odds. It is a love story for the ages. It is a love story that is real, yet it has a mythic quality. The author herself sees this. In reflecting on this love, she writes:
In 1987, when CBS began airing Beauty and the Beast, an American fantasy-drama series about a relationship between a mythic man-beast named Vincent and a New York City assistant district attorney named Catherine, I felt like I was watching the story of my life.
Ms. Spencer-Nurse begins the story of her life, like many good story-tellers, in medias res. It is a snowy day in November 1984. As an attorney who has been practicing law for a couple of years, she has returned to New York City, the city of her birth, after having graduated from Temple Law School and living in Philadelphia for a couple of years. She is now working for the Prisoners’ Rights Project (PRP) of the Legal Aid Society of New York. She is visiting Elmira Correctional Facility, once called a Reformatory when it first opened in 1876, to interview men confined there about Ku Klux Klan activity at the prison.
At the prison it could just as well be 1876, when the first incarnation of the KKK was dying as Reconstruction was coming to an end. Ms. Spencer-Nurse is there because a man incarcerated at Attica Correctional Facility, one of New York’s most (in)famous prisons, wrote a letter to PRP alleging that when he was at Elmira he had been dragged out his cell by guards clothed in white sheets, assaulted and called racial slurs. He also alleged that some guards bragged about being members of the KKK.
One of the men Ms. Spencer-Nurse interviews, Ernest Nurse, who would become her husband, has not been at the prison very long. He doesn’t know much about any KKK activity going on at Elmira.
After the visit, Ms. Spencer-Nurse tells her law school buddy, Beverly, about Ernest. For ages, poets have written about the power of love, that when it truly happens, you know, that it can conquer all (omnia vincit amor), that it is…inexplicable. As for “love at first sight,” it’s a myth, until it happens. Both Claudette and Ernest experience the same thing, the gravitational pull of love that applies even in the prison universe.
Ernest tells Claudette his story. He killed a man. He is serving 25 years to life. He won’t be eligible for parole until November 2002, for nearly another 18 years.
Over the next 18 years, Claudette visits Ernest in various prisons. They marry in 1989, shortly after an individual in prison, Richard Langone, and his fiancée, successfully challenge a law prohibiting marriage of people serving sentences with a maximum of life.
The life of a prison wife is not easy. As Claudette later points out in the book, many of these marriages fail. According to various researchers, the U.S. divorce rate is about 50%. Surely, the prison divorce rate is probably much higher, especially post-release. Claudette notes, “Of the approximately fifty women I’d met who married a man in prison or had been married to a man before his incarceration, I know of only four couples besides myself and Ernest who are still together after their release.”
After seven years of marriage, Claudette tells Ernest she wants a divorce. She works on the petition but doesn’t file it. She can’t bear the thought of spending the rest of her life without Ernest. And then there are people, including family and friends, who question the sanity of women who marry men in prison, probably the main reason why many keep this a secret from them. Certainly, something must be wrong. Claudette can’t help but wonder if something is wrong with her. In the very beginning, when she realizes that she is falling in love with a man who might be spending the rest of his life in prison, she begins to see a psychologist.
Claudette doesn’t report if this prison love has a diagnosis.
Although this is a love story, Claudette lives her life, personally and professionally, while her husband is in prison. Many other women in such relationships put their lives on hold and let it revolve around their incarcerated men.
As an attorney for the Prisoners’ Rights Project, Claudette is involved in many significant cases. She is most proud of the work she did on the case that first brought her to Elmira, Santiago v. Miles. In that case, the Judge ruled that “the plaintiffs had proved the existence of a pattern of racism at Elmira that went ‘beyond verbal taunts and racial slurs uttered by guards to minority inmates.’”
As an attorney, Claudette’s work was not simply confined to prison issues. Long before #BlackLivesMatter, she was involved in protests over the killings of unarmed Black men, beginning with the killing of West African immigrant Amadou Diallo on February 4, 1999.
Claudette states that she is most proud of her work in Santiago v. Miles, but the work she did on parole reform, founding and spearheading the Coalition for Parole Restoration (CPR), is the work that probably led to her husband being released at his very first parole board hearing, when less than 5% of men similarly situated were granted parole on their first appearance. It is important to note that long before other organizations and attorneys jumped on the band wagon of parole reform, Claudette was zealously advocating for meaningful parole reform. Indeed, almost any positive movement towards parole reform can be credited to Claudette’s work with CPR.
In conclusion, this book is a good and easy read, not bogged down in legalese. It is a book that has something for various audiences, including families impacted by the prison-industrial complex, people in prison – they would want to read the full transcript of Ernest’s parole interview, which is practically a primer on how to present oneself at the parole board – advocates for prison reform, and people who love a good love story.
William E. Waters is the author of three books of poetry, including the award-winning Black Shadows and Through the White Looking Glass, and a novel. He’s an advocate for a just society. He has worked with Claudette Spencer-Nurse at CPR for parole reform. Check out and subscribe to his blog at www.ezwaters.wordpress.com.