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Judge Officiates Wedding Ceremonies for Inmates : Handing Out Life Sentences

October 23, 1986|SANDRA CROCKETT | Times Staff Writer

Infectious giggles spilled from the young woman as she sat on a bench inside Pasadena Superior Court. It was minutes before her wedding and the start of what should have been a life together for the bride and groom.

But it wasn't. Shortly after saying "I do," Frances Melendez Silva, 22, of Whittier, had lunch with two friends. Her husband, Robert Silva, 22, of Pasadena, went to Chino State Prison to complete 6 1/2 years of a seven-year prison term for assault with a firearm.

After officiating the brief but touching 10-minute ceremony, Judge Gilbert Alston returned to the bench and continued hearing felony cases.

'Romantic Kind of Guy'

"I'm just a romantic kind of guy who believes in marriage," said Alston, the only judge in Pasadena and one of about 15 in Southern California who performs wedding ceremonies for inmates.

He called marriage a "positive reinforcement" for prisoners who exist in a system that otherwise relies heavily on "negative reinforcements."

"When prisoners express a desire to get married, they are indicating that they are trying to make a change for the better," he said.

"We don't encourage or discourage weddings," said Jack Corrie, public information officer for the state Department of Corrections. "If they fall in love and want to, they take care of the paper work and get married. It's done just like if you want to get married on the street."

Alston said he has performed about 100 inmate marriages since joining the Superior Court bench in 1980. Recently, he said, the number has increased to about two marriages a week.

"I think the word has gotten out through the public defender's office," he said. "I just received a request from a prisoner in Santa Monica."

Blood Tests Waived.

Most of the people Alston marries come from the Los Angeles area. The prospective wife makes the arrangements with the court clerk. Blood tests are waived, but the couple must pay the $35 fee for a marriage license.

Alston admits that he does not understand why women marry imprisoned men and has no way to determine the durability of the inmate marriages.

"Being the father of a daughter, I sometimes wonder when I see a woman who appears to have the looks and the brainpower to do better," the judge said. "I once married a beautiful woman, a schoolteacher I think, to a man who is serving 17 years."

Alston, who refuses to accept money for performing an inmate marriage, said a happily married prisoner is more often a model prisoner. "The correctional officers

have more leverage with married prisoners," he said.

John Dovvy, public information officer for the Chino State Prison, said inmates in California prisons without disciplinary problems are allowed conjugal or "family visits" every three to six months, depending on the availability of accommodations.

Before the start of the Silva ceremony, which was squeezed in before resumption of court business after the lunch break, Alston laughingly told the groom "this is a life sentence."

The wedding party consisted of the bride, groom and two friends of the bride who served as witnesses. The court clerk, bailiff and about 20 attorneys and courtroom watchers were present for the ceremony.

Springtime Yellow

The bride was dressed in springtime yellow outfit, and the groom, who had entered the courtroom from a holding cell, wore a shirt, tie, gray sweater and black slacks.

They gazed at each other, then kissed before standing hand in hand in front of the judge.

Alston said he has written "less flowery" marriage vows specifically for inmate weddings.

Alston told the couple that they were about to "commence the lifelong exploration of companionship, affection and love . . . through the bad times as well as good."

Applause and Tears

After the judge pronounced the two husband and wife, the spectators in the courtroom burst into applause and a few women sniffed back tears. The newlyweds exchanged another kiss before Silva was led through the side door where all prisoners exit, and his wife rejoined her friends.

"I love her," Robert Silva said. "If I didn't think it wouldn't last, I wouldn't do it."

The new bride refused to discuss the bad times, choosing to remember only the good. Like the day she and Silva met nearly a year ago at a friend's birthday party.

"Robert is very special. He is one in a million," she said. "You might say it was love at first sight."

'A Happy Story'

The bride appeared radiant except during a brief moment when she was asked why her husband was in prison.

"I don't want to talk about that," she said. "This is a happy story."

The new Mrs. Silva said her parents had mixed emotions about her marriage.

"My mother feels like if I am happy then I should go for it. But my father, well, you know, dads will be dads. This is my life, though, and this is what I want to do."

A former employee with the state Department of Transportation, she plans to move to Northern California where she will live with Silva's mother and his 3-year-old son. She hopes to enroll in computer school and intends to visit Silva as often as she can.

Ironically, three days after her own wedding, the bride served as an attendant in her sister's traditional church wedding.

She said she and her husband will have a "real" wedding after he is released from prison.

"After he gets out we are going to marry again. At that one I will wear a wedding dress," she said.

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