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DANA PARSONS

Bringing wedded bliss to prison time

October 28, 2008|DANA PARSONS

The guys at the roofing supply company in Santa Ana are always giving co-worker Cynthia Richardson the business. What is it with you and inmates?

Her boyfriend is a felon and she writes him every day. She's been writing to another guy, a lifer in Folsom, for seven years. Framed pictures of them in prison garb are on a shelf behind her desk. One of her sons just got out of Tehachapi. The other will be sentenced next month. She has a couple of friends in Theo Lacy in Orange County. A niece's husband "went upstate" not long ago.

Richardson takes the ribbing in stride. But even when a complete stranger from the newspaper (like me) shows up at the row of commercial and industrial offices where she works and eventually gets around to asking her the same question with that same indelicate language, she's not the least bit put off.

For better or worse (more on that later), she's an open book on the subject. "I thrive on the prison system," she says. "The endless fight to make it better. It fascinates me."

So, while driving home one night a few months ago, something clicked. Her 26-year-old son Josh faced sentencing for burglary. Richardson thought that if he were married, a judge might keep him closer to home. His fiancee, Amanda, had been dating him for a year and was visiting him three times a week in prison.

Richardson, 51, remembers thinking: I can become an ordained minister.

She'd preside over Josh and Amanda's wedding here in Orange County before he was sent out. She needed to be a notary public, too, so she took a six-hour class and is awaiting her certificate.

Another thought hit her: If she could perform a marriage ceremony for her son, why not for other people?

Earlier this month, she took out a business license in Fullerton under the name "Jailhouse Weddings" and hopes to turn it into a moonlighting job. Not to make a lot of money -- because the couples usually don't have it -- but to do her bit for humanity.

An Orange County Sheriff's Department spokesman says the system doesn't keep track of jailhouse weddings but says there have been a few in the last year.

So, are these marriages of love or practicality? Are they meant to influence judges and to ensure that couples get conjugal visits?

To an extent, yes, Richardson says. But that doesn't preclude romance.

"My ex-husband's wife met and married a guy who was already incarcerated. Most of these people are really in love," she says. "Most were involved prior to the other one going to jail."

Not all of the details are in place yet. When I ask what church ordained her, she momentarily draws a blank. She goes to the computer, knowing she has an e-mail on it somewhere.

I try to be nice. "Shouldn't you know what church ordained you?"

She's equally nice while continuing to check. "It's a church in Fresno or something." In a minute, she finds it. "Pastor, welcome to the ministry. This is to confirm you've been ordained in the Universal Life Church in Modesto," she reads. "I promise before I start performing weddings, I will have all this down pat, because people are going to want to know. They're not just going to take my word for it that that's who I am."

I understand the motivation for her son, but why expand it to a business? "I think I'm doing something for society," she says. "If we out here don't still love our loved ones who are incarcerated, they're never going to rehabilitate. Because why should they? They become institutionalized, they think don't have anyone who cares about them."

In that moment, I get it. What may strike some as a kooky obsession is Richardson's way of attaching a little humanity to people snubbed by society. Knowing better than most how awful prison life can be, she wants the inmates to at least feel human.

"Most people don't admit they have loved ones incarcerated; it's shameful to them," she says. "Not to me. They've made bad decisions, yes, and yes, there are horrible people incarcerated, but there are also people who aren't so bad. They just made bad mistakes."

Richardson doesn't know what to charge. She doesn't have a business plan, other than to hand out see-through pens with her business' name on it and maybe some fliers. She doesn't know anything about the real demand for prison weddings.

But she knows one thing. "In the roofing business, we eventually are going to run out of re-roofs," she says. "But there's always going to be turnover in our county jails."

So you'll never run out of customers?

"I don't think so," she says.

--

dana.parsons@latimes.com

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