Emma and Emmanuel: a Marriage Through Prison Walls

Emmanuella and Emmanuel Pierre call each other “Twin.” It makes sense, since they both have practically the same first name and were both born on April 10, 1978, to different Caribbean immigrant families, one in Canada; the other in the U.S. They met when they were ten years old, on a Brooklyn playground. Emmanuella – Emma, as she’s known – remembers:

I was the new kid in sixth grade. Emmanuel dropped his ball and I picked it up. He said, “Thanks,” then he said, “God, you’re skinny. You look like Olive Oyl.” And ran away. So we became best friends.

They lost touch in high school but, incredibly, rediscovered each other by accident on the Brooklyn Bridge during the August 2003 NYC blackout. They’ve been together, in one way or another, ever since – even after 2005, when Emmanuel was sentenced to 25-to-life for murder – which, Emma tells me, is a wrongful conviction. Four years ago, in a prison ceremony, they were married.

Emma is a sparkling, upbeat person – quite a feat, given that Emmanuel’s first chance for parole isn’t for another seven years. Emma and her son Graham live in Brooklyn, where she works at a financial regulatory firm, volunteers for Release Aging People in Prison, and waits for the day when Emmanuel walks free. Recently, I was talking to Emma on Zoom about all this. Neither of us knew that Emmanuel himself would enter the conversation.

Let’s begin just after Emma talked about how much fun she and Emmanuel had every day, after they reconnected on the Brooklyn Bridge. They were inseparable for maybe eight months. Then Emmanuel was arrested…

EMMA: The night they came for him, he was actually on his way to my house. And when he was taken, I felt like somebody had died.

I became like the family liaison, the paralegal of his case. He had a girlfriend at the time, so I was really just helping get everything together. His parents are Haitian immigrants; none of us were familiar with what was going on. I’ve never been in trouble with the law; he’s never been in trouble with the law – we were kind of blind to everything. After he was convicted, people scattered. But I was there from the beginning because I’d have wanted someone to help me in that predicament. Also, I’m Catholic, and Jesus was in jail…

His friends helped me get through it. I ended up marrying one of his friends and had my son with him. It didn’t work out, so I dated for a bit. Then one day I was single and visiting Emmanuel in prison. I kind of looked at him; he kind of looked at me. We started asking each other, “What do you think would have happened if we’d ended up together?”

He said, “I don’t know. I always saw us getting old together, sitting on the porch, sipping lemonade.” Next thing, we kind of dated, then one day he called and said, “You want to get married?” I said, “Yeah! Why not?” We got married at Green Haven [Correctional Facility].

I got flak from my family, of course. My brother and I stopped speaking. My mother was like, “You married him, you figure it out.” A lot of my friends still don’t know. I guess the stigma of being married to an incarcerated person bothers me. I’m very protective of what I have with Emmanuel.

But now, I’m coming out. There’s nothing to be ashamed about: I met someone that I love. Our marriage is actually better than some people’s in the free world. It’s something to be celebrated.

Q: Have you contacted any lawyers to see if they could help Emmanuel?

EMMA: Lawyers, as you know, are expensive. I spoke to one attorney who loved Emmanuel’s case. But he said, in good conscience, he couldn’t take my money because the case might take six years to go before a judge, and Emmanuel’s going for parole in seven.

Emmanuel said, “Look, take that money, buy a house. We’ll be fine.” He told me we’ll figure another way. I appreciate him, but I hate him at the same time for that. I still want him home. [Laughs] It’s tough; we’re 43 years old. Right now, he’s attending college. He’s a straight-A student, I’m proud to say. He’s always been super-smart.

Q: How does the reality of Emmanuel in prison impact your everyday life?

EMMA: It hurts every day. Every day I feel like I’m fighting for him, for us, for our son. I see people taking their relationships for granted. They argue about these little frivolous things, and I want to tell them, “You should be happy your loved one is there with you to have these arguments.”

When we argue – as all couples do – I don’t know when he’ll be able to call me so we can work it out. And when he does call, you’re only given 15 or 30 minutes on the phone – sometimes two minutes – to talk things over. It’s hard, especially with the holidays, because you want to be with your loved one, you want to be a family.

So much time is passing us by. I want a child. I feel like a failure sometimes as a woman because I want to be able to give him a child but he’s not home. When he comes home, I’ll be 50.

So we’ve decided, once he comes home, it’ll be “our time.” We have a list of things we’ll do. Like, I could travel the world, but I can’t go to Paris, ’cause that’s gonna be our thing. We’ll see the City of Lights together. Sit in a café and drink some tea, people-watch, whatever we want to do. We live on a fantasy. Because I don’t know if that day will come. Tomorrow’s not promised. I might not make it; he might not make it…

Q: How is that for Graham? Does he consider Emmanuel a father?

EMMA: He does. He loves Emmanuel. He calls him Dad, if he’s not calling him Twin. It’s hard to parent while one parent is behind the wall, especially with a young man. Graham’s 12, the teenage years are coming, and he’s trying to find himself. Me, I can only give him but so much, so he relies on Emmanuel for guidance. Whatever they discuss is between them. I try to stay out of it.

Sometimes Graham comes to me and says, “You know, when Emmanuel comes home, I’ll be 20?” I’m horrible at math, and when Graham has math problems, he’s like, “Is Twin going to call? I need help with math.” Every time we watch a judge show, he’s like, “Mommy, can that help Twin?” Or, “Can we object?” [Laughing] So it’s a beautiful thing but it’s hard. Emmanuel gets upset because he misses important things, like Graham graduating, getting awards, playing basketball.

But I’m happy we had a foundation before COVID hit. We do things together, like our own little reading club. We pick books to read and discuss. We have movie nights, me, him, and Graham. We do Bible studies. We do couples’ quizzes together. We date on the phone. We try to keep it fresh.

We take this time to strengthen our marriage, because my worry is, when he comes home, it’s going to be different. I’m not used to having him here. Even though I know how he is, I don’t know how he is as a romantic person.

Q: What’s it like for Emmanuel in terms of COVID? Does he feel safe?

EMMA: Well, actually, he’s calling right now. Do you want to ask him?

[Robo-woman’s voice: This call is subject to recording and monitoring. To accept charges, press one – thank you for using Securus. You may start your conversation now…]

EMMA: Hi, baby. I’m doing the interview and Susie asked if you feel safe in prison about COVID. Do you mind answering?

EMMANUEL: Hi, how you doing? … Not at all. I’m scared. There’s no way for me not to be scared.

We’re in close enough proximity where, if somebody has it, you’ll get it. I wash my hands, I wear my mask – they give us masks – but still you’re scared. Let’s say ten people test positive. They don’t have ten ventilators for us in here. If it’s really bad, they might take us to a local hospital but if the beds are full, do you think they’re going to put one of us in there? So there’s a constant fear.

Q: How was visiting for you and Emma, before NY State shut down visits?

EMMANUEL: At first, we could hug each other, then they said, No hugs; No physical contact. I couldn’t even hug my wife. I haven’t kissed my wife since March. People might not think that’s anything, but we’re a loving, married couple, so to not be able to kiss your wife…

Q: How have incidents of white supremacy, like the January 6 madness at the Capitol, affected both your lives?

EMMA: I was part of the Black Lives Matter marches. The way we were handled, I was scared. You saw the officers just waiting to do anything if you looked at them wrong. You could feel the tension. Then to see these people at the Capitol rioting and officers opening up barricades for them… I know, as a Black person, we could not have gotten that far.

When I visited my husband, the way the officers treat us visitors and the people inside, it’s sad. You come to the visiting floor, and the guys in prison, they’re very nice to the families. They’ll say “Good morning” or “Good afternoon,” always respectful. But the guards: “NO talking.”

He just said “Good afternoon,” is it really that serious? It’s the power these officers want. You can feel it. It’s basically the same thing for BLM marches and when I go visit.

EMMANUEL: That’s a good comparison.

Q: Emmanuel, do you want to talk about what it’s like to wait years for a chance at parole?

EMMANUEL: Wow, that’s a loaded one. Over the years, I’ve seen many individuals do a lot of time – eventually, they get exonerated. You find out the crime they were in for, they didn’t do. I read it in the papers. How much time did they do – 16, 24, 28 years? Why did it take so long? Why are there so many people in here that are innocent?

I have seven more years. Some people might say, “Oh, it’s just seven, compared to the 17 you already did.” I’m saying, a lot of time was wasted. I want to be home. I miss my family so much. My mom, every time I see her, she’s getting so old. My grandparents passed away. They were together 75 years. Once one went, the other passed a few months later.

For years I just wanted to see my grandmother and grandfather: Tell me about when you were kids; about life when racism was even bigger out there – tell me how you got through. Tell the stories.

And with COVID, why not start letting people who’ve done lots of time go home to be with their families? They might not get that chance, if COVID becomes rampant in prison, or if it hits their loved ones outside. Ah. Let people go. I pray. I pray every day for the moment I could say, “I’m home.”

Emma, you want to add anything?

EMMA: I remember at the end of his trial, the lawyer said to him, “If you plead, you’ll probably get 14 years.” I told him, “Just take the deal.” He said, “No. I didn’t do it.”

Of course, I supported him in what he wanted. But when the 14-year mark came around, I was like: You could have been home.

EMMANUEL: Oh, babe don’t cry, you’re gonna make me tear up over here. Emma, you right. It’s easier to think about it now, after the 14 years came and went. Maybe I should have pled just to have gotten lesser time. What if I’d taken that deal? But when you know you did not do something, you’re like – no. Even five – two years is too much.

But babe, I thank you for being here for me. Even before, when we were just “best friends.” You kept me going. A lot of people don’t have that love. I thank you for that. It’s hard, but we’ll get there…

© susie day, 2021

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SOURCES:

NYC Blackout, August 14, 2003

https://www.nytimes.com/2008/08/14/nyregion/14blackout.html

Release Aging People in Prison/RAPP

http://rappcampaign.com/

Securus:

https://securustech.net

Covid-19 outbreaks in state prisons prompt calls, lawsuit for releasing vulnerable inmates:

https://buffalonews.com/news/covid-19-outbreaks-in-state-prisons-prompt-calls-lawsuit-for-releasing-vulnerable-inmates/article_0e08af72-5c38-11eb-b94d-1767d8153227.html

Black Lives Matter protests/police:

New York State Attorney General Sues NYPD for ‘Pattern of Abuse’ at BLM Protests

https://nymag.com/intelligencer/2021/01/letitia-james-sues-nypd-for-violent-tactics-at-blm-protests.html

How Many Innocent People are in Prison?

https://innocenceproject.org/how-many-innocent-people-are-in-prison/

How Many Innocent People Have We Sent To Prison?

https://www.thenation.com/article/archive/how-many-innocent-people-have-we-sent-prison/

Jailed but Innocent: Record Number of People Exonerated in 2015

https://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/jailed-innocent-record-number-people-exonerated-2015-n510196