The law which took effect back in September now requires both parties to be present during a marriage ceremony. Previously, only one party needed to be present and a 'stand-in' or proxy could be present for the inmate. A spokesperson for the Texas Prison System stated they do not allow ceremonies in any of their facilities and they do not plan on making any policy changes to allow ceremonies in the future.
The law was meant to stop people from fraudulently marrying someone and cashing in on their spousal benefits. However, an unintended consequence of the law is that it also affects prison inmates and conflicts with a U.S. Supreme Court ruling from decades ago that upheld a inmate’s right to marry. The U.S. Supreme Court addressed this issue twice: once in a 1978 case from Wisconsin and once in a Missouri prisoner’s case in which the prisoner’s right to marry was upheld both times.
Before the new law took effect late last summer there was a rush of inmates marriages. Now inmates must wait until they are released before getting married which means some may never be allowed to marry.
Scott Riling, chief of staff for Rep. Trent Ashby of Lufkin said, “We didn’t realize we were going to open up a can of worms.”
Riling insisted when Ashby sponsored the law that the law was intended to protect people from marriages performed without their knowledge, not to prevent inmates from getting married. He said the new law came from children of an elderly man who complained to Ashby that an East Texas woman who had been their father’s caregiver for several years fraudulently married him by proxy to collect financial benefits.
She wound up with a 10-year prison term.
Texas is the only state with a large prison population which refuses to allow inmates to marry at its prisons.
Even though a ban on proxy marriages completely deprives prisoners of the right to marry is unlikely to survively constitutional scrutiny there are no immediate plans for changes in the law. It will take years for a lawsuit to make its way through the court system to force Texas to change its ways.