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California prisons prepare for gay inmate weddings

By LISA LEFF, Associated Press

SAN FRANCISCO—Now that same-sex couples can get married in California, state prison officials are trying to figure out what that means for gay inmates.

No prisoners so far have sought to arrange weddings with same-sex partners since the state Supreme Court granted same-sex couples the right to wed as of mid-June, according to Michele Kane, spokeswoman for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

Nonetheless, department lawyers are drafting guidelines to bring the state's 33 adult prisons into compliance with the court's ruling that same-sex couples must be treated the same as opposite-sex couples under the California Constitution, Kane said.

What they have determined so far is that would mean allowing gay inmates to marry someone on the outside, but not a fellow prisoner—the same rules that apply to straight inmates, according to Kane.

"They will have the same marriage rights as other inmates—they will be able to marry non-inmates, but barred from marrying other inmates in prison," she said.

Prison officials were concerned that allowing two men or two women in the same prison to get married would pose novel safety and security concerns, according to Kane.

"For instance, suppose a prisoner finds out another prisoner has money or other assets. They might find themselves coerced into a marriage with a more powerful inmate who might try to lay claim to half their assets," she said.

Department lawyers also are recommending that prison chaplains relinquish the job of performing weddings for inmates once the proposed policies take effect, Kane said. Turning over the rituals to outside officiants would not put chaplains who may oppose same-sex marriage on religious grounds in the position of presiding over some ceremonies and not others, she said.

If approved by the division that oversees adult prisons, the rule prohibiting two inmates from marrying would mirror the prison policy in Massachusetts, the only other U.S. state where same-sex marriage is legal.

Last year, California became the first state to allow conjugal visits and overnight stays for inmates with same-sex partners in the civilian population, Kane said. The department does not keep a tally of how many prisoners have taken advantage of the spousal bonus since then.

The department also does not have a recent count of how many of the 125,000 adults in its custody get married each year. Anecdotally, an average of two weddings each month take place at the medium security prison in Solano that houses just over 6,047 inmates, according to Kane.

Donald Specter, director of the nonprofit Prison Law Office, which monitors the rights of California inmates, said he did not agree that allowing two prisoners of the same sex to marry created special security concerns.

But as long as the guidelines corrections officials develop apply to all inmates regardless of their sexual orientation, they will be hard to argue with, Specter said.

"The law requires they treat people the same, so that's a good principle to have in mind when they are drafting regulations," he said.

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