April 2017 was the month that changed Emma Pickett’s life forever.
The 33-year-old care assistant had separated from her partner and while browsing the website writeaprisoner.com, she decided to offer her friendship to an inmate.
‘Writing to a prisoner was something I had seen other people do. I had friends who had done it,’ Emma tells New Idea.
‘I am not a judgemental person. I was just looking through profiles, but nobody was really jumping out at me. Then I saw Justin’s page.’
Justin Erskine, 30, is serving life in prison in the United States for first-degree murder and will never be released.
He was found guilty for his role in the brutal killing of two men in June 2006, after an argument over drugs.
He supplied the knife used to stab one of the men and then helped bury the bodies.
But undeterred by his background, Emma posted him a letter offering him friendship.
And when Justin replied, Emma says she realised the pair had ‘so much in common’.
‘His profile said that he liked poetry and books, and I fell for his charming smile and ridiculous good looks,’ the mum, from the UK, says.
‘Our communication then started to escalate and we got to the point where there were three or four letters going between us at any point.’
By July last year, Emma says they both began to realise there was more than just friendship between them. Each letter they wrote saw them corresponding with increasing emotion.
‘We actually had both written a letter to say that we loved the other – these were both in the post at the same time,’ Emma reveals.
But at this point, the pair had not met – nor had they even spoken on the phone.
The first phone call took place on July 16 – and Emma admits she was ‘very nervous’.
‘But as soon as I heard Justin’s voice on the receiving end, all of my anxieties disappeared, and I felt a great sense of familiarity with him,’ she says.
The couple began speaking as often as possible, and a couple of months later in September 2017, Emma flew to the James T. Vaughn correctional centre, in Delaware, to visit her new beau.
‘When we kissed for the first time, it was so special – he exceeded my expectations and meeting him confirmed all my feelings,’ Emma explains.
‘It blew me away the first time I met him, and I’ve now been over to visit him twice.’
But not satisfied with a long-distance romance, Justin then asked Emma to be his wife.
He popped the question inside his high-security prison – but wasn’t allowed to get down on one knee as he has to remain seated during visits.
‘Justin is the love of my life and when he asked me to marry him, of course I said yes,’ Emma says simply.
The pair will wed in the prison chapel this year.
‘We are due to take part in a marriage seminar, which won’t happen until September as they only hold them once a year,’ Emma explains.
‘I am only allowed to take a couple of guests, so I’m likely to have my mum and sister with me.
‘Justin will also have family there and we’ll be allowed some decorations and flowers.’
Emma is also on the hunt for the perfect wedding dress – not an easy task as the prison is ‘quite strict with clothing’ – and she has already bought her ring, which is engraved with the words: ‘Ah, it’s you.’
And while a conventional honeymoon won’t be possible, Emma plans to move herself and her three children to the
US once they are wed.
‘Despite never having met him, the kids all get on so well with Justin,’ Emma explains.
‘He and my son were playing battleships together this week, and Justin calls my youngest daughter every night to read her a bedtime story.
‘Justin is so good with them and he really cares about them. My eldest daughter even calls him her stepdad – and she is so excited to visit him,’ she adds.
‘My family just want me to be happy and they can see that Justin makes me happy.’
Unsurprisingly, however, not everyone approves of Emma’s long-distance relationship.
‘There have been some negative reactions from some of my friends over our relationship,’ she admits.
‘I knew Justin’s sentence when I started writing to him – I went in with my eyes open and could have stopped writing.
‘But I didn’t because I knew what I was doing and he has always been very open with me about it and told me to ask any questions that I have.’
And while the pair wait to wed, their transatlantic romance continues.
‘We watch films together – if there’s one on in the prison
I will watch it here, and we also listen to the radio together,’ Emma explains.
‘The distance is difficult and it’s a massive challenge.
But we don’t let it affect our relationship.
‘We also try to have intimacy in our relationship and have letters that detail more intimate sides,’ she says.
And while Emma knows that she will remain physically alone, even after their nuptials, she doesn’t mind.
‘I never feel lonely,’ she says.
‘I love him and it’s a case of when you know, you know.’