This information was last updated on November 11, 2021. It is not guaranteed to be the most current information, so please make sure to contact the appropriate people at DOC before making arrangements.
Prisoners in the United States have the constitutional right to marry, but Washington state laws do give prison officials the ability to dictate just about everything concerning the process and timing. DOC’s website on prisoner marriages and domestic partnerships provides the relevant state laws and policies, as well as one of the crucial forms the non-incarcerated partner will have to fill out. The marriage must go through DOC’s official process. Do not attempt to covertly carry out a marriage without DOC approval and involvement. Those who have tried doing so before have encountered major disciplinary consequences.
DOC’s website on marriages also gives some information about the marriage process. Here is a scan of the complete marriage paperwork packet from 2016 (IMPORTANT NOTE: some documents may have been updated by DOC since that time, so use this scan for informational purposes only, making sure to request current versions of all forms from DOC, as some things may have changed).
As of November 11, 2021, DOC is only allowing virtual marriages (using Microsoft Teams) due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Please verify with DOC that this is still the case if you are currently going through the process. The Washington State Supreme Court order (AMENDED THIRD REVISED AND EXTENDED ORDER REGARDING COURT OPERATIONS No. 25700-B-626) that made virtual marriages legal can be found here (see pg. 13 of the document).
Here are the most common challenges people encounter when attempting to go through WA DOC’s marriage process:
- Lack of support and information from apathetic or unresponsive DOC staff: For a prisoner to marry, the following employees must do their part to sign off on various steps of the process: the prisoner’s counselor, the prison FRMT committee, the prison superintendent, the prison religious activities coordinator (chaplain), and sometimes the prison visiting employees (especially for in-person weddings in non-pandemic times). It can be very hard to track down phone numbers or email addresses for these employees, and can be just as challenging to get them to do their part. If you need help with any of this, post a request in the Families of Washington Department of Corrections Prisoners Facebook group and others will help you track down the contact info. Also see here for info on figuring out staff emails and wording emails effectively. You can also contact DOC’s Family Services Unit employees for help if local facility employees are not responsive. As of November 2021, the current DOC Family Services Unit Manager is Dawn Taylor, who is a very kind lady and who can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Confusion about how to initiate various steps in the marriage process: Assume that both the prisoner and the prisoner’s intended spouse will have to nag the DOC employees for just about every step of the marriage process. Do not count on DOC to initiate any of the steps. The prisoner’s counselor is the one who has to process all of the preliminary official paperwork (both the prisoner and the intended spouse will need to submit an official certified birth certificate, for example, and this can be challenging to do if either partner has difficulties obtaining this document). The prison religious activities coordinator is the one who has to coordinate the logistics of the actual wedding ceremony (sometimes with the help of visiting staff). The prisoner and the prisoner’s intended spouse are the ones who have to identify a premarital counselor and wedding officiant. (The premarital counselor can sometimes be a prison volunteer or religious activities coordinator, but it cannot be the prisoner’s DOC counselor.) The prison religious activities coordinator is the one who must provide the officiant and the wedding guests with the appropriate background check form to attend the wedding ceremony, even for virtual weddings. Either the prisoner’s counselor or the religious activities coordinator will need to provide the person carrying out the premarital counseling with the correct DOC form that the premarital counselor must then submit to DOC. Most of the forms that need to be filled out during the process will need to be submitted to the prisoner’s counselor, but some forms (such as the background check forms for guests and officiants) will be submitted to the religious activities coordinator. Approval of the non-incarcerated partner’s wedding clothes will need to be obtained from the religious activities coordinators, and/or the prison superintendent. Sometimes the visiting sergeant also has a say. The marriage policy does allow some deviation from visiting dress code for wedding clothes, but it is best to submit a photo via email in advance to make sure you have approval documented in writing. In general, try to get everything DOC employees tell you about the marriage process documented in writing via email.
- Confusion about who can provide marriage counseling or serve as a wedding officiant: Anyone who is certified to carry out marriages in Washington state can officiate (solemnize) the wedding for the couple (see RCW 26.04.050), so long as they are approved after filling out the correct DOC background check form provided by the prison religious activities coordinator or prison counselor. In some cases, the religious coordinators themselves may be willing to officiate the wedding. DOC will also typically allow the wedding officiant to be the one who provides the premarital counseling. Premarital counseling requires that the couple and their chosen premarital “counselor” go through a specific DOC form to discuss various topics the DOC deems important (see marriage packet referenced earlier, and make sure that you have gotten approval from the local prison staff to use the premarital counselor you have chosen before beginning the counseling, otherwise it will not count). The counselor checks off each item on the form (make sure that DOC has given the counselor the most current version of the form), then adds any relevant commentary, and then signs and submits the form to DOC. The couple will have the best experience if the premarital counselor they choose is a nonjudgmental and truly interested person. A good premarital counselor can actually be very helpful to ensuring that the couple has discussed many important aspects of marriage and personal life history. However, if a premarital counselor is chosen who does not understand the unique life histories of the incarcerated or their loved ones, the counseling questions can feel intrusive and even demoralizing or condescending. As of November 2021 DOC is allowing marriage counseling via phone, which requires the premarital counselor to set up a conference call that both the prisoner and the intended spouse can join. (Or the intended spouse and counselor need to be in the same room together at the time of the call.) The prisoner’s counselor and/or Custody Unit Supervisor (CUS) should be informed that the counseling conference call is to take place, both to keep them in the loop and to possibly receive some extra phone time for the prisoner. Unless the prisoner has an unusually supportive and enlightened DOC counselor or CUS, the prisoner must unfortunately participate in telephonic premarital counseling using the standard GTL prison phone system, which can be challenging if the phone connection is not good or if the 20-minute call intervals interrupt important discussions. (Not to mention the cost of phone expenses!)
- Timing of obtaining a marriage license and obtaining the incarcerated partner’s signature on the marriage license application: Marriage licenses in Washington state expire after a certain time period, and it can be challenging to get the relevant DOC employees to coordinate everything on the right timeline. Be prepared to potentially have to pay for for a second marriage license if the timing goes wrong with the first one. (Everything from staff apathy and disorganization to prison lockdowns and disciplinary action can disrupt the marriage process timeline. Have we mentioned that the DOC agency is the worst in-law in the universe?!?!?! Prison marriage is NOT for the faint of heart!) Because the incarcerated partner cannot be present to sign the application for the marriage license at the relevant county auditor/clerk office (see local county government websites for info on which county is correct to file your marriage license application in), the non-incarcerated partner will need to mail the application to the incarcerated partner, who will need to sign it in front of the prison notary and have it notarized. The incarcerated partner must then mail the application back out to the non-incarcerated partner, who must then sign the form in front of the county auditor/clerk for it to be legally valid. This is also when most counties will charge the marriage license application fee, at which point the couple will be issued a marriage license and a blank marriage certificate form. The non-incarcerated partner needs to hold on to that license and marriage certificate form until the day of the wedding ceremony, at which point the documents will need to be reviewed and filled out by the wedding officiant and witnesses (who must be DOC approved guests or sometimes DOC employees; note that the incarcerated partner gets to have one fellow prisoner as a wedding guest and witness). A witness is a person who is present at the wedding as a guest or other figure, and who is not the wedding officiant. Two witnesses must sign the marriage certificate. The officiant and the couple must also sign the certificate.
- Wedding rings and signing of marriage certificate: The couple will have to be creative to figure out a way to measure the incarcerated partner’s ring size, since DOC is entirely unhelpful in this and provides no ring sizers. During the COVID-19 pandemic (and hopefully beyond…see letter here) DOC is allowing families to purchase wedding rings for the incarcerated spouse from outside vendors. Alternatively, prison industrial complex rings can be purchased from the DOC approved vendor, Union Supply, using the property package order process (however, wait until the DOC religious activities coordinator gives the final okay before ordering, and be aware that the property sergeant will hold on to the ring until the ceremony occurs, at which point the ring will be added to the prisoner’s official property matrix). For rings from outside vendors, the non-incarcerated partner will need to make plans with the religious activities coordinator to mail the ring to the prison. During virtual ceremonies, the officiant, non-incarcerated witness/guest, and non-incarcerated partner will sign and date their parts of the marriage certificate. Make an arrangement with DOC to then immediately mail the marriage certificate to the religious activities coordinator for the incarcerated partner to sign. The religious activities coordinator (NOT THE PRISONER!) will then need to mail the certificate back out to the non-incarcerated partner. (Very Kafkaesque, no?!) Then the marriage certificate will need to be filed with the relevant county auditor/clerk as soon as possible. Once that takes place the marriage is official!
- Explaining prison and virtual marriage ceremonies to county auditors or clerks when filing a marriage certificate: Some people have encountered scrutiny from county auditors or clerks if the non-incarcerated and the incarcerated partners write different dates on the marriage certificate form when signing it. If the couple asks the county auditor/clerk or any DOC employee about whether the incarcerated partner should write the ceremony date or the actual date of signing on the marriage certificate form, the answer will inevitably be: “We cannot give you legal advice.” Washington Corrections Watch also cannot give you legal advice. We just strongly recommend bringing the following documentation when filing the marriage certificate with the auditor/clerk: (1) a printout of the Washington Supreme Court order allowing virtual marriages and (2) any printouts of any emails with DOC or documents DOC provided explaining the process the couple had to go through to fill out the marriage certificate. This will at least help the auditor/clerk understand what has occurred. It can also be beneficial to have the officiant present to help answer the auditor’s/clerk’s questions, as well as a phone number and email address for the prison religious activities coordinator in case the auditor/clerk wants to contact them for verification.
For more information on the importance of post-incarceration marriage and family building in Washington state, see the section on post-incarceration marriages in our report Punishing Relations – How WA DOC’s hidden costs and collateral damage imprison families.