By Nathalie Bonney
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Videographer / director: Elie Khadra
Producer: Chloe Sweet, Nathalie Bonney, Ruby Coote
Editor: Florence Kennard
Couple Carla and Erik have spent their entire 10-year relationship – seven of which they’ve been married – living separately. Erik is serving a 13-year prison sentence and the couple met a year into his incarceration.
Out of their decade-long relationship, Carla estimates she and her husband have spent approximately 50 days together.
After going through a painful breakup, Carla, aged 19 at the time, was looking for someone to talk to. Her cousin introduced Carla to Erik, who after all had a lot of time to talk, if not go on dates.
Carla told Barcroft TV: “She asked me if I would talk to somebody. And I said, ‘yeah, have him call me’. And then she went on and told me he was incarcerated, so I told her: ‘no’ and she somehow got me to write him.
“I said: ‘Okay, that's fine. I'll write him, I guess we can be friends.’ And that's how it all started. He called me one day and we started talking from there and then the rest is history.”
Carla’s family were worried to learn she was not only dating someone in prison but someone convicted of a violent crime. Erik’s 13-year sentence is for attempted murder.
Carla, from Tracy, California, said: “He was a part of a gang when he was younger, he was I think 13 years old when he joined the gang. And yeah, he doesn't really talk about it.
“When we first started talking, my family was not okay with me dating him.”
Carla herself admits that dating someone behind bars was the last romantic scenario she’d ever imagined.
She said: “I never pictured myself in a relationship with an inmate because there's nobody in my family that has ever been to prison.
“I didn't know what it was like, I never thought about it, I never pictured it, I never nothing.
“I was hesitant because you hear stories about people that get into relationships with inmates and all they want is like money or just somebody to go visit them. And that's what I thought about, but he never asked me for any money in the beginning.”
After three years of talking on the phone, regular visitations and a steady stream of love letters, (Erik’s were always illustrated), the couple decided to get married. There was no wedding dress, no cake and no parents.
Carla said: “My parents didn't go. My mom did not agree with this so she did not go. So I only had my cousin there with me.
“We drove over there, me, his sister and my cousin that introduced us. I gave the sergeant our papers, and the rings and then they gave me a paper to take in there and they told me that the minister was going to come to get us to marry us.”
By getting married, Carla and Erik were entitled to conjugal visits and able to spend whole weekends together.
Carla said: “We get to spend 47 hours together so that's the only thing that has changed and it actually helped our relationship I think, because we get to spend time together, we get to cook together, we watch movies. So yeah, that's nice.”
Now 28 and 29 respectively, Carla and Erik are preparing for his release date in April. As well as Erik re-integrating back into civilian life, the couple will have to learn to live with one another 24/7 - a far cry from the daily 15-minute phone calls they are currently allowed.
Carla said: “I’m not sure how it's going to be when he comes home. I thought about it a lot, and I tell him that I could deal with him for 47 hours but I don’t know how it’s going to be.
“He's been in there for almost 13 years, and he has missed out a lot. He's missed out his whole 20s, like the funnest years: drinking, partying, being able to go to the club, just everything. He doesn't even probably know what a touchscreen phone is.”
And while Erik has been in prison Carla has been trying, as best as possible, to live an ordinary life. Being in the outside world, Carla doesn’t only have to defend her husband but herself too.
She said: “Dating somebody in prison I think society just sees you as a gangbanger, as automatic killers, crazies, dangerous people.
“Because you're married to somebody or you're dating somebody in that situation, they think you're like that too.
“As a criminal people think he's just like wanting to beat up people and do stuff to people.
But he has feelings, he gets sad, he gets emotional. If he was a hardcore, crazy person he wouldn't be sending all these little lovey, dovey stuff.”
Love letters aside, Carla has already made it clear to Erik that if he reoffends once out of prison, their marriage is over.
She said: “I don't just live like a fairy tale world where I'm like, I'm in love. You never know what could happen.”
While their relationship is no fairy tale, the couple are hoping for a happily ever after. Erik and Carla plan to get a house together and want to start a family next year.
Carla said: “We're going to try to live a normal life. That's what we want and that's what we plan on doing. And hopefully it goes right.”
But before all that, they’re just excited to walk down the street freely as husband and wife.
Carla said: “I cannot wait to just like hold his hand and walk down the street with him. That's going to be fun.”