The sweet nothings that lovers share, the passionate embraces and deep kisses that seem to slow down time, all go by the wayside when the clock’s ticking and the guards are watching in a prison visiting room.
"We can hug and kiss quickly when we first see each other, but that’s it," said Kate Noxel, whose fiance, Jacob Angelilli, is incarcerated in Pennsylvania. "We’re not allowed to hold hands."
As often as she can, Noxel drives about 80 miles, alone, from her home in Pottstown to see Angelilli at Camp Hill State Correctional Institution near Harrisburg, where she’s searched and scrutinized.
For couples like Noxel and Angelilli, separated by prison bars and locked cells, there’s no illusion that their relationship is perfect, but some try to make it work, to build a love they hope can beat the years.
"There wasn’t really much of a question for us," said Noxel, 32. "It’s a big thing for sure, but it’s nothing that can separate us."
Angelilli is serving a three- to seven-year sentence in state prison for a 2012 weapons possession charge, and Noxel prays he doesn’t get transferred somewhere farther.
"He could wind up in Pittsburgh," she said.
Distance is the greatest barrier between Emmanuel and Kim Clothakis — about 350 miles from the home they shared in Rome, N.Y., to the cell he lives in at a federal prison in Fairton, Cumberland County in South Jersey.
Manny, as Kim calls him, is serving a 43-month sentence for assaulting a postal worker and for harassing and threatening his in-laws in Facebook messages and phone calls.
Obviously, Kim’s family isn’t supportive of the relationship, but the couple celebrated their third wedding anniversary recently, over the phone.
"Two years ago today was the last time I saw him," Clothakis said recently from her home. "His family is very supportive, but I get a lot of, ‘Why are you putting yourself through this?’ I love him, though. It boils down to that."
Before she met Manny, Clothakis was married, sharing a bed with a man she said she barely knew and hardly communicated with. That’s the odd part of a relationship through prison, she said: All the conversations, the letters and cards and phone calls they share can somehow make them feel closer.
In federal prison Manny gets about 300 minutes of phone calls per month, she said, and they try to space them out at 10 minutes per day.
Noxel said she and Angelilli get much less time, about 15 minutes on the phone every four days, though she writes him many letters and sends emails daily that he’s not allowed to answer. The details, she admits, seem mundane: the score of the Super Bowl, what she had for dinner, how job searches are going — but she said they’re important for him to know he’s still a part of her life, along with her 9-year-old son, who is not yet allowed to visit.
"I don’t want him to feel left out," she said.
Prison visiting regulations vary greatly among institutions, but they are all strict, including limiting particularly revealing clothes. Few states allow conjugal visits. Mississippi, the state that first implemented the practice, ended conjugal visits earlier this month.
Noxel said she is happier with Camp Hill than Angelilli’s first, closer jail, Graterford, because she can actually sit with him, rather than behind a glass partition. Still, they have a long way to go, she said.
"It’s frustrating more than anything," she said. "I don’t break down and cry, because it’s jail, it is what it is."
Clothakis said her husband should be out in less than three months and back home in New York with her and their dog, Teagan. On Valentine’s Day she had advice for any woman sitting in a courtroom, listening as a lawyer or judge lays out the hard truths of the time she and her partner will be facing together.
"Manny would have understood if I left him, but I chose to fight," she said. "It’s tough. Don’t expect it to be easy. If you love one another, you’ll make it through."
Jason Nark, Philadelphia Daily News