Prison can break a marriage. Would Elsy and Leyda make it through their husbands' sentences?
Elsy Lopez met her husband, Lázaro, at Home Depot when they were in their early 20s. She was an employee. He was a customer. Though she doesn't remember what he came to buy, the two became inseparable and eventually married.
But after Lázaro became embroiled in criminal activity alongside his brother, he went to prison on a 12-year sentence.
THE LONG ROAD FOR PRISONERS' WIVES
For married couples, incarceration significantly increases the risk of legal separation or divorce—even after the sentence is served. It's not just the pain of distance that breaks up marriages. The spouse at home bears social stigma, loss of income, uncertainty about the future, fear for the incarcerated spouse's safety, legal expenses, loneliness, and the hardships of rearing children alone. Perhaps it's not surprising that each year of incarceration increases a couple's risk of divorce by about a third.
Lázaro and Elsy both wanted their marriage to succeed, but they couldn't deny the separation was hard. For part of that time, Lázaro was incarcerated in the city of Okeechobee, Florida. Though Elsy was determined to visit, the prison was three hours away by car—or it would have been, if Elsy had a car.
Lázaro talked to his cellmate and best friend, a fellow Christian named Raúl, to try to solve the problem. Raúl's wife, Leyda, made regular treks to the prison on visiting days. Leyda had room in her car for Elsy and agreed to pick her up on her way to Okeechobee.
A COMMON BOND: HUSBANDS IN PRISON
Elsy gratefully accepted Leyda's offer of a ride. Soon, the two women developed a routine they would follow for years. In the relative cool of the early morning, on the prison's designated visiting days, Leyda would wake her two sons, a preschooler and a teenager, and buckle them into the car. The sleepy mother and boys headed to Elsy's home, where Elsy slid into the front passenger seat. As Leyda drove northward from Miami along Florida's remote country interstates, the boys nodded off in the back seat, and the women talked about what they had in common: husbands in prison.
They talked about the myriad prison regulations that governed their interactions with their spouses. Sometimes, if they weren't wearing the right clothes, prison officials would turn them away. If that happened, they had two options: head to Okeechobee's Super Walmart and buy something, adding to the cost of the trip, or miss a precious opportunity to see their husbands. Other times, if they arrived too late, the prison might have already met their visiting capacity for the day, and they would be denied entrance.
They also discussed the bewildering, exhausting turn their lives had taken: their husbands' court cases, the extra jobs they took to survive (Leyda had three), and the breathtaking expense of visits and phone calls to the prison, which quickly ran into hundreds of dollars each month.
Because of their shared trials, Leyda and Elsy soon formed a steadfast friendship. Between visits, they often called each other to offer support—support that each woman craved. After all, not everyone understood their desire to remain in such challenging marital relationships.
"When things are good, everyone tells you to stay in the marriage," Leyda says. After Raúl was sentenced for insurance fraud, the advice changed, but Leyda's commitment didn’t. "While it was a difficult situation, we just felt that turning our backs on our husbands would not have been the right thing to do," she adds, while acknowledging that others might feel otherwise and act differently in their own situations.
Elsy, too, believed she needed to stay the course. "Marriage is for better or for worse," she says. "When you love your spouse, what happens is what happens. We just felt it was our duty, so that's what we did."
FIGHTING TO REMAIN A FAMILY
Leyda says that some so-called friends turned their backs after Raúl's incarceration. And while family members tried to empathize, they never quite understood the weight she was carrying.
"It's not a situation that happens to a family," she explains. "It's a situation that happens to you as an individual. The responsibility to care for my kids was mine. It was my responsibility to make the visits happen and to maintain my kids' relationship with their dad and with me. I was the one who had to fight for that."
Elsy agrees. "You have to fight so hard. … You can't ever let yourself fall apart, [because] you have to keep fighting for your kids and for your spouse."
If daily life resembled a battle, Elsy and Leyda armed themselves with their mutual faith in God and their favorite passages from the Bible.
The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing.
He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside quiet waters, he refreshes my soul.
He guides me along the right paths for his name's sake.
Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I will fear no evil,
for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.
You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies.
You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.
Surely your goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.
Psalm 23, NIV
Elsy often repeated Psalm 23, clinging to the promise that God would lead her through her shadowy valley. Leyda found solace in Philippians 4:13, knowing that God would help her do what felt impossible—especially trying to "be both mother and father" as her boys grew toward manhood.
THE ULTIMATE SOURCE OF HELP
Through the years, God remained faithful.
"God was our help," reflects Elsy. "Often we couldn't count on people, even those nearest and dearest to us, but we could always count on God. You know, for me those years passed rapidly. People would ask me, 'How can you bear this long time? And the waiting?' And only God knows the strength He gave me just to keep moving forward, to keep working, to keep supporting my husband, because that's what I needed to do."
Raúl and Lázaro, too, fought to keep their families together. They spent their prison time growing into the men and leaders God purposed for them to be, and they took steps to maintain their relationships. At Christmas, they signed their children up for Prison Fellowship Angel TreeTM so they would receive gifts and a personal message of love from their fathers at Christmas.
I can do all this through him who gives me strength.
Philippians 4:13, NIV
"Angel Tree was a very emotional experience, because I was trying to fill the place that should have been filled by their dad," remembers Leyda. The kind volunteers made her feel seen in her struggle. "It gave my kids a lot of satisfaction."
MOVING FORWARD IN HOPE
Eventually, life changed again. First Lázaro and then Raúl came home. Though marked by joy, their returns brought challenges.
"When they get out, and you’ve been on your own for a long time, you develop your own way of doing things. You have to relearn how to be married in a way," Elsy explains.
Leyda adds, "We're not just talking about days of separation. We're talking about years during which each person gets used to building their own life. [Lázaro and I] maintained the marriage, the relationship, but the day-to-day living together, that had changed."
The adjustment took time and patience, but both couples eventually found their equilibrium. Once again, they beat the odds by remaining married.
Though their kids are all grown, and their husbands have been out of prison for more than a decade, Elsy and Leyda remain friends. They talk on the phone frequently. Raúl, a Prison Fellowship® volunteer, helps Lázaro, a Prison Fellowship field director, at Hope Events. With the enthusiastic support of their spouses, they share the Gospel with men and women in the Florida Departments of Corrections—including those currently doing time in Okeechobee.
Whenever Leyda and Raúl visit Orlando, they stay with Lázaro and Elsy. During those visits, the foursome sits around a table—no correctional officers watching, no time limit on their conversation—and talk about how far God has brought them.
For those just beginning the journey, Elsy and Leyda have this message of encouragement:
It's a hard life to be married to a prisoner, especially for a mother with children. So, trust God. Pray a lot! Pray for your spouse, that they, too, would seek God. That's that only thing that can help you and them move forward."
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