When a prison inmate exchanges vows with a free world fiancé, the ceremony is bound to be bittersweet. Inevitably, the joy of the occasion collides with the harsh fact of physical separation. When the inmate is serving a life sentence, the pathos doubles. And yet, when JeJuan (Shaun) Cooks and Trashundra (Trish) Lenoard asked me to officiate at their wedding I agreed without hesitation.
Over the past year and change, I have examined every conceivable aspect of the alleged crime and the 2011 trial that sent Mr. Cooks to prison.
I’ve traced the history of the region from slave plantation days to the present.
I’ve called attention to the fatally flawed investigation of the case.
I’ve indicted the criminally inept legal representation Mr. Cooks received from pro-prosecution “defense” counsel. I’ve even exposed the Trumpian religious world that has shaped the outlook of state’s only meaningful witness, ex-Sheriff Chris White.
The Friends of Justice investigation of this case should raise serious questions about the fairness of the criminal justice system, especially in small-town Texas, but JeJuan Cooks is still behind bars. It will take a strategic legal fight to change that, and Friends of Justice doesn’t handle that end.
But JeJuan and Trish decided to get married anyway. They met through a faith-based prisoner correspondence program. At first, JeJuan was just an anonymous prisoner. Overtime, their letters became more personal. Eventually, Trish flew from her home in Atlanta, rented a car in Houston, and drove through miles of Deep East Texas to what was then known as the Eastham Unit. She introduced herself to JeJuan’s family in Hearne, Texas.
At first, Trish made do with no-contact visits. Eventually, though, she won the trust of prison authorities. A no-nonsense, results-oriented medical professional, she knows how to take charge of a situation without creating too much pushback. When Trish and JeJuan were first granted a contact visit, he shook uncontrollably in her arms. It had been so long since he had experienced affectionate human touch.
The couple were enthusiastic participants in the state-mandated pre-marital counseling program. They knew what they were getting themselves into. Trish has done the marriage and parenting thing before, so the lack of physical presence was something she could live with. She didn’t like it, of course; but it wasn’t a deal-breaker.
A decade behind bars has mellowed JeJuan. If you have been following this story, you know I normally call him “Shaun”. That’s what his family and friends call him. But Trish prefers his given name, JeJuan. To her, “Shaun” is his old-life name; JeJuan is his new-life name. In this piece, it’s “JeJuan” in deference to Trish’s preference.
True to form, Trish had all the complex details of her wedding nailed down well in advance of the blessed event. She picked out a dress and got her hair done. She picked up the marriage license in Houston. She booked a room for me and my wife, Nancy at the Huntsville Holiday Inn. Nancy and I completed our first vacation, a two-day jaunt to Galveston, before making the three-hour drive north to rendezvous with Trish and JeJuan’s mother, Iris.
The afternoon before the ceremony, the four of us met in a hotel conference room where we did a Zoom call to JeJuan. Trish kept her hair covered. She didn’t want the groom to see it until the big day. She showed me the lovely ring JeJuan had purchased online for her. Stimulus checks went out to everyone, and JeJuan invested every cent in a first-rate wedding ring. Bride and groom were doing everything in their power to make this a proper wedding.
We chatted for half an hour, and then moved to the breakfast area. It being 100˚ F outside and we were all sporting bare arms and legs. It felt like 65˚ inside and, by this time, our teeth were beginning to chatter (at least, mine were).
When I asked the manager if she could adjust the thermostat, I was informed that, due to the hotel’s concern with Covid-19, they preferred to keep the temperature low. When I related this message to Nancy and Trish, they were incredulous. Sure enough, mask requests were posted all over the ground floor, but lowering the temperature wouldn’t help. If anything, it encouraged the virus.
And if Holiday Inn was so concerned about Covid-19, why was the manager mask-less? And why were the guests she was chatting with following suit? With ICU rooms overflowing across the South, and death counts spiking, Nancy wasn’t about to let this go. “If the hotel encourages mask-wearing,” she asked the manager, “may I ask why aren’t you wearing a mask?”
“Personal preference,” the woman replied tersely.
“I’m not wearing a mask either,” a guest chimed in. “Never have; never will. Nothing personal, if you want to wear one; but it’s not for me!”
This was precisely the response Governor Greg Abbott’s opposition to mask mandates was encouraging. “It’s not a matter of personal preference,” Nancy replied. “It’s a matter of life and death. This is a public health issue.”
The manager scowled. “I’m going to call the police and have you evicted,” she snapped.
“Really?” Nancy said.
“Really!” the manager repeated.
Nancy ended this heated encounter with a single word: “Wow!” Then she rejoined us.
This attitude prevails throughout rural and small-town Texas. People don’t wear masks and, apart from the over-65 crowd, most aren’t getting vaccinated.
I tried, unsuccessfully, to call and text Holiday Inn’s corporate office. I didn’t really want to get the manager fired. In my eyes, she was a victim of mass delusion. I just wanted her to mask up and actively encourage her guests to do the same.
The morning of the big day, Trish appeared in the lobby, a vision of loveliness in her wedding gown. We moved outside so we could remove our masks and take a few pictures. I managed to squeeze into the black suit I bought for our daughter’s wedding a decade, and twenty pounds, earlier. It took some effort to get the waist fastened, but I made it work. The tie worked fine.
Nancy pronounced a formal blessing on Trish. I climbed behind the wheel of the bride’s rented Buick. “I’m too nervous to drive,” she told me. “Are you nervous too?”
“Not really,” I said. “My only fear is that I’ll fail the Covid test when we arrive and they’ll cancel this thing.” Trish and I had been vaccinated months earlier; JeJuan had received his second shot a month before the wedding. “I was nervous,” he told us during the Zoom call, “but I want to do this so badly, that I would have let them cut an arm off it that’s what it took to make it happen.”
JeJuan resides in the Eastham Unit, one of the original prisons constructed in the Huntsville area in the second decade of the 20th century. The prison’s 12,789 acres were cleared by slaves prior to the Civil War, and the property a working cotton plantation until Reconstruction made the plantation system obsolete. The property was sold to the Eastham family in 1896. They paid the state of Texas $14.50 a month for each of the 119 convicts who worked the property free of charge. Texas was determined to run a prison system that didn’t cost the tax payer a dime.
According to the Thirteenth Amendment, ratified in 1865, “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” The obvious implication was that convicted criminals could be worked as slaves, and, in Texas, they were, until the convict leasing system was abolished in 1914. When Robert Perkinson discusses convict leasing in his highly-praised Texas Tough: the Rise of America’s Prison Empire, he used the Eastham Unit as exhibit A.
In other words, the Texas prison system is a vestige of antebellum enslavement (the central thesis of Perkinson’s Texas Tough). Everything in Texas goes back to slave days if you think about it long enough. While Nancy and I were in Galveston, we visited the Gresham’s Castle, a massive home constructed between 1887 and 1893 out of solid rock. As the name suggests, the mansion was constructed for Walter Gresham, a wealthy Texas attorney and politician who owned the Gulf, Colorado, and Santa Fe Railroad. In today’s money, the home cost a $7.5 million to build, and one wonders how Gresham could afford to build the most expensive home in Texas. He made a pile of money being a railroad magnate, of course. But where does a man get enough money to build a railroad? According to the recorded tour guide, Gresham was heir to a family fortune tied to a Virginia cotton plantation. In other words, he got his money on the backs of hundreds of enslaved men, women and children.
The Eastham property is so vast that wardens have boasted that no man alive was fast enough to make it to the fence before the dogs caught up with him. That didn’t stop Clyde Barrow and his boys from busting out of the place in 1934, but that was an audacious and carefully orchestrated operation.
Just days before the wedding, the Eastham Unit became the J. Dale Wainwright Unit. Wainwright is a Black Republican attorney who served on the Texas Supreme Court before going into private practice. This demonstrates the impressive progress Texas has made in the racial justice arena. We take a prison unit named for a family that made a fortune off of convict-slave labor and name it after a conservative Black attorney. Nothing changes, of course, but it makes a better superficial impression. One wonder why a Black person steeped in civil rights lore at Howard University would allow his good name to be associated with a prison, once known as “The Ham”, that is synonymous with brutality and racial oppression. Well, that’s for J. Dale to figure out.
When Trish and I finally arrived at the prison gate, we parked by the side of the road and awaited instructions. After several minutes, a prison guard in a straw hat, sauntered over to our vehicle. “What’s up boss?” he asked me in a Deep East Texan drawl. “We’ve got a wedding scheduled for 9:30,” Trish informed him. “If you call the office, they’ll explain it all to you.”
The Black guard strolled back to the gate. A few minutes later, he returned. The office says they’ll let me know when to let you pass,” he said.
Fifteen minutes later, Trish was getting nervous. We had left ourselves plenty of wiggle room, but it was rapidly evaporating. Finally, she pulled out her phone and called the office herself. Thirty second later, we were waved through the gate.
It was a considerable drive until we reached the front office. A woman in a watchtower hollered for us to show our ID. Fortunately, Trish knew this meant to hold our drivers’ licenses up to a scanner. A couple of minutes later, a Black warden appeared. He appeared to be in his mid-30s, handsome and dignified. He took us into the office and handed us do-it-yourself Covid tests. We waited for the verdict. “You both came back negative,” the warden said at last.
The Texas prison system, finally, is taking the pandemic seriously. By November of 2020, 231 Texas inmates were dead from Covid-19. Ten months later, the figure is likely approaching 500 (although the TDCJ site, inexplicably, has the number at 168). TDCJ publishes a nice eulogy for every staff member who dies from Covid, but makes no attempt to personalize the inmate stats.
Finally, we were allowed inside the twenty-foot-tall fence. From there, it was just fifty feet to the visitor reception area where the ceremony was scheduled to take place. Once inside, we were informed that, due to Covid-19 protocols, this would be a no-contact visit.
For a brief second, Trish was deflated. I could see it in her eyes. But she was determined to make this a positive and memorable experience. It was her wedding day—dammit—and it was going to be special. It had to be special.
JeJuan appeared moments later, formally attired in an orange jumpsuit. He had been informed that this would be no-contact “visit”, and, like his bride, was determined to make the best of a grim situation. I was pleased to see there was a ten-inch-by-ten-inch square hole in the thick metal mesh separating us. JeJuan reached his right arm through the hole and clasped my hand. “Dr. Bean,” he said with a broad smile, “it’s so good to meet you face-to-face.”
“Okay,” the female guard in the room said, “you only got a few minutes to do this, so you better get started.”
I opened my black folder and read my usual greeting and said my usual prayer. I had selected four brief passages of scripture: the last part of the “love chapter” from 1 Corinthians 13 (“Love is gentle, love is kind”: a go-to text for weddings), and then read three related passages from 2 Corinthians in which Paul talks about his great suffering while imprisoned in Ephesus.
“We were so utterly, unbearably crushed,” Paul says, “that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death so that we would rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead”.
Then I preached a wedding homily unlike anything I had ever preached before.
Many of the letters we find in the Bible were written from a prison cell. In Second Corinthians, Paul is addressing a church he had founded years earlier. But now he’s having issues with that congregation and he wants to hit the reset button. He’s struggling to find common ground. The church in Corinth was going through a time of persecution. Paul wanted his readers to know that he was no stranger to hard times.
The suffering that comes from insults and false accusation.
The suffering that comes from imprisonment, beatings, hunger and sickness.
Paul has been there and he’s done that. He has the scars to prove it.
There were times, he admits, when the weight of suffering was too much even for him. He broke down. He gave up. He surrendered to despair. He felt like a dead-man-walking. But he has no regrets. For it was in the heart of his deepest, fixin’-to-die pain that he encountered a God who raises the dead.
James Cone, the father of Black theology, wrote a little book shortly before he died called The Cross and the Lynching Tree. It was a book that only a Black Christian could write. “Suffering naturally gives rise to doubt,” Cone says. “How can one believe in God in the face of such horrendous suffering as slavery, segregation, and the lynching tree? Under these circumstances, doubt is not a denial but an integral part of faith. But doubt does not have the final word. The final word is faith giving rise to hope. God snatches victory out of defeat, life out of death, and hope out of despair.”
Despair is presumptuous. Despair decides that, since life is miserable, it won’t ever get any better. We think this way sometimes to protect ourselves. If we give up on life, if we foreclose on hope, we will never be disappointed. When bad things happen, we shrug and say, “it is what it is, what can you do?”
That’s where Paul found himself. But God refused to leave him there. And so, deep in the dark night of the soul, with prison shackles on his wrists and his ankles, the apostle made a life-changing discovery: “Where the spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.”
And I’m here to tell you that, because the Spirit of the Lord is in this place, we are free.
That doesn’t mean the pain goes away. It just means that “We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed.”
We need to hear this hard, revitalizing word right now. Because, let’s face it, a prison wedding is bitter-sweet. There will be no wedding night, no bridal shower, no romantic honeymoon. The traditional wedding service says that “what God has joined together let no man cleave asunder.” And that’s exactly what these prison bars appear to do: they appear to cleave asunder what God has brought together. And that’s tough.
But remember: Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And when the Spirit of the Lord draws a man and a woman together in the bonds of love, no prison bars can mess with that reality. Physical separation bows to a profound spiritual union.
“When I became a man,” Paul says, “I gave up childish things.”
JeJuan and Trashundra, I don’t have to explain that one to you. Since the first blossoming of your love, you have never had the luxury of immaturity and childish day dreams. You have pledged your love to one another with a clear-eyed maturity born of suffering. You know what you’re getting yourselves into.
Building a marriage in the cruel context of forced separation will take courage. It will take faith. It will take hope. Above all, it will take love. And I’m not talking about puppy love, or sentimentality; I’m talking about the love that only God can give. The kind of love strong enough to break prison bars, overcome injustice and affliction, and triumph in the midst of tragedy.
“I still have a dream,” Martin Luther King said shortly before his assassination, “because, you know, you can’t give up on life. If you lose hope, somehow you lose that vitality that keeps life moving, you lose that courage to be, that quality that helps you to go on in spite of all.”
You are not alone. You have one another. And despite the realities of incarceration, you have the freedom that God alone can give. You have resources to work with. The building materials needed for a rock-solid covenant lie at your fingertips. These gifts are as invisible as the tie that binds you together; but nothing is more real.
And so we enter into this covenant of marriage with a joy born of hope. May the Lord bless you and keep you. May the Lord make his face to shine upon you and be gracious unto you. May the Lord lift up his countenance upon you and give the peace that passes all understanding.
In the name of the Father, and the Son and the Holy Ghost, Amen.
As I spoke, JeJuan and Trish were holding hands through the tiny window. “JeJuan would give my hand a little squeeze now and then, to tell me how he was feeling,” she told me later.
The prison guard left the room for several minutes. Trish told me later, that the woman was weeping uncontrollably and had to leave so she could compose herself.
The couple exchanged vows (no ring exchange was allowed) and I made the marriage pronouncement. What I said in my homily was sadly true. There would be no traditional kiss. No reception. No tossing of the wedding bouquet. No honeymoon. They just escorted JeJuan back to the cellblock and Trish and I were escorted back to the gate.
Later that afternoon (thank God), Trish and Lois were allowed a contact visit. If that was allowed, I wondered, why was the couple separated in so cruel (and ludicrous) a fashion during the ceremony? Trish wasn’t worrying about that. She had come to terms with the arbitrary nature of prison regulations. She was just glad that she would be able to embrace her beloved in a few brief hours. Even then, no kissing was allowed.
Since arriving back in Arlington, Trish and I have had a zoom visit with the attorney who is handling JeJuan’s case. It will be a long, procedurally awkward process. Trish knows that. She’s willing to wait . . . so long as we’re making progress.
I got a letter from JeJuan a couple of weeks ago. “Main thing is,” he told me, “we accomplished our goal. I’m now married to my future, and I want so badly to be with her. I refused to make promises I can’t keep. I know my failures, and I see my blessings. God is heavily on my mind.”
I will close with the benediction I used during the ceremony:
God of love, we pray your blessing upon this union of JeJuan and Trashundra. May they always remember this day as the richest of blessings. May their relationship be rooted in your passionate love for all creation, through Christ our Lord, Amen.