VIDEO: Arkansas inmate, woman linked through poetry plan wedding, dream of day he will be released

Posted: October 10, 2017 at 4:30 a.m.

Wayne Young and Claudia Cerna hug during a visitation. The two met when Young was already in prison and plan to get married before the end of this year.

Wayne Young and Claudia Cerna hug during a visitation. The two met when Young was already in prison and plan to get married before the end of this year.

They are waiting.

For the next phone call.

The next letter.

The next visitation.

The day the paperwork finally goes through and the prison chaplain sets their wedding date.

They dream of normalcy -- of waking up together, eating meals together and having conversation uninterrupted by a woman's automated voice cutting in after 29 minutes of conversation.

"Your call will end in one minute."

Wayne Young and Claudia Cerna hope to get married before the end of the year. Their wedding ceremony will take place in prison, where Young will spend at least the next two years, serving a 15-year sentence for possession of methamphetamines and cocaine, forgery and theft by receiving.

His nickname for Cerna, 30, is "Disney," a hint at her innocent nature. The thought of stealing something as small as a pencil makes her break out in a nervous sweat.

They come from two different worlds -- she is the daughter of a minister and a schoolteacher. Her parents moved the family from Costa Rica when Cerna was 7. Her father moved from Nicaragua to escape a communist government. They chose Arkansas because they saw no way for their daughter to get into trouble in the Natural State.

Young, now 31, dropped out of school in the eighth grade, left his mother's house and moved in with "a certified drug dealer," who taught him how to sell cocaine, he told Cerna in a January letter. It was during this time of his life that he started rapping, a skill that eventually translated into poetry.

Poetry is where the couple found their common ground -- Cerna is an aspiring writer who just finished a manuscript documenting her family's journey to the United States, and Young is a poet, at least while he is within the prison walls.

Cerna also works as a sales associate at Pier 1 Imports in Rogers and is a chat specialist, answering hotlines at the Arkansas Crisis Center. The rest of her time is spent writing and caring for her three cats. She says Young can list all of their names -- Tigger, Bear and Bagheera -- and their food preferences.

Young participated in Inside Out, a poetry event for incarcerated artists. DecARcerate, a grassroots advocacy group, organized the event, sending fliers to every prison in the state to ask for prisoners to submit their work. Volunteers, most of whom are poets also, read the submissions.

Cerna met Zachary Crow, the decARcerate director, through the slam poetry circuit, and he asked her to be a reader for the first Inside Out in November.

A reading Sept. 19 at White Water Tavern was the third iteration of Inside Out, which raises awareness about problems facing prisoners and about the work decARcerate does. Poems touched on executions, daily life in prison and rehabilitation.

"The No. 1 goal is to continue elevating the voices of people who are in prison and helping give voice to experiences of incarcerated folks," Crow says.

DecARcerate, which is made up of individual volunteers and various nonprofit groups, has a Facebook page for those who want to connect with the organization.

DecARcerate got more than 150 submissions for Inside Out, and after sifting through the poems, Crow selected "Just a Letter," by Young and asked Cerna to read it at the November event.

"You never know what a letter can mean

Until you've been where I've been or seen what I've seen ..."

The words stuck with Cerna, and she decided to write Young a letter, addressing him at first as "Mr. Young," and asking to hear more about his life.

Young says via letter that he was shocked that anyone wrote back, even after he submitted the poem. He used his last stamped envelope sending the poems off to his mother for her to submit, and when Cerna replied, he was anxious about his response.

"I didn't want to scare her off by saying the wrong thing. ... I get nervous around normal people, meaning I'm only use to being around other criminals," Young writes.

Their letters did not maintain the formal tone long; Young started addressing his letters to "Claudia Lovely" and including smiley faces scattered between the words in his small, cramped handwriting.

A friendship grew, and they talked about everything from allergies and their pasts to their hopes for the future. They talked on the phone at first on a free call that lasted 60 seconds before the phone company shut it off. Cerna then set up an account for them to talk more often.

He first brought up the idea of starting a romantic relationship in a card he sent in March. The card features a heart and two roses. The words "Newfound Love Claudia n Wayne" are written in a thick script across the front.

Cerna keeps these next to her bed, carefully numbered, and bound together with rubber bands inside a light-blue box with flowers etched on its surface.

Young keeps his letters from her folded inside a plastic Wonder Bread bag in his cell at the Mississippi County Work Release Center near Luxora.

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This was his fourth time to go to prison, and his release is scheduled for June 2019. He "went down" for the first time when he was 19.

Young and a group of other convicts leave the unit each day to do work in northeast Arkansas. Young works on a construction crew, and gets paid $11 per hour. He usually works from 10 to 12 hours each day.

He spends most of the rest of his days sleeping, reading, listening to music on his MP4 and writing to Cerna. Young sends his "Claudia Lovely" two or three emails each day, a couple of letters each week and calls or video chats with her every day.

Crow, of decARcerate, is getting ordained, and Cerna hopes he will officiate the wedding because of the role his organization played in introducing her to Young.

Cerna says she has gotten warnings from friends and acquaintances that Young might be using her or might not be good for her, although she says her closest friends are supportive.

"It seems kind of crazy but it is what it is," she says, showing his signature tattooed on her arm.

After a series of bad relationships including a rape in college, boyfriends that didn't quite work out and most recently a divorce, she says the way Young treats her is a welcome change.

She already wears her wedding band to remind Young that she is dedicated to the relationship. Until they are married and his ring can be entered into his personal possessions log, he wears a piece of the chain from his ID badge wrapped around his finger as a placeholder.

"I could meet 1,000 men on the street and they would not be him," Cerna says. "I've had plenty of guy friends, I've had several relationships and none of them have been him. Nothing that's worthwhile is easy."

Cerna and Young met with the prison chaplain for premarital counseling at the end of September, moving the process along one more step.

Even when they get married, they will still be waiting.

Cerna will still be reading Young's poem at Inside Out events, glancing down at the words that have become familiar by now, the spotlight casting shadows of her black curls on the wall behind her, her voice low and strong over the crowd.

Claudia Cerna reads a poem by her fiance, Wayne Young, at Inside Out: A Poetry Reading at White Water Tavern in Little Rock. Young is scheduled for re...

Simone Renee, who goes by the pen name Cobris, reads poems written by Arkansas prison inmates at decARcerate’s Inside Out: A Poetry Reading at White W...

A photo of the poem "Destined" by Wayne Young

Young will still be writing her letters each week, often ending with his signature: "Until pen meets paper again."

Style on 10/10/2017