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Relationships

Prison romance: The Wellington couple who fell in love behind bars

''I grew up with my dad in and out of prison. I don’t judge,'' explains yoga instructor Justine, who had an instant connection with inmate Dylan.

By Cloe Willetts
Justine Hamill packed up her yoga mat as the last of her students left and immediately called her best friend. Something unexpected had happened. She'd just met a man who'd totally knocked the wind out of her.
"Whatever the light is inside him, it's pretty bright and that's what I saw straight away," says the Wellington yoga studio owner, 43. "I told her all about him and our instant connection, then said, 'S--*!'"
He was Dylan Harris, 33, a prison inmate taking part in her yoga class at Rimutaka Prison's Drug and Alcohol Treatment Unit. He was a recovering addict, raised in the thick of South Auckland gangs, in jail for his third time.
"I'm serious about boundaries, so I told my friend I'd keep them intact," recalls the mum of three. "But there was something about him.
He had a depth of knowing inside, something intrinsic. And I could see he was really willing to change his life."
In his prison cell, Dylan did something similar.
"I wrote a letter to my mate about her," he recalls. "When I walked in and saw her for that first time, it was like being colour-blind and all of a sudden you can see colour."
Dylan had a tough upbringing and says it was inevitable he'd fall into crime, drug and alcohol abuse, and violence.
"My father and uncles, my role models, were gang members," he tells. "As a child, there wasn't a lot of nurturing or genuine happiness and laughter. If people were laughing it was because they were high."
By 15, his parents had passed away and Dylan became a state ward. Two years later, he entered Mt Eden Corrections Facility for the first time for dishonesty- related charges.
"There's no-one there to hold your hand and you're thrown into the pits with the animals, basically," says Dylan, who spent a third of his life institutionalised.
Seven years ago, hooked on substances and "looking down the barrel of quite a few years in prison", Dylan was accepted into Auckland's Alcohol and Drug Court.
He went into an 18-month residential rehabilitation care programme.
Proud of his girl! Justine won 2019's Yoga and Mind Body Instructor of the Year.
He says, "I had to work really hard to get that opportunity, but I'm hugely grateful because they change lives. It changed mine."
When he met Justine last August, he'd already dabbled in yoga, enjoying its physical and mental discipline.
Dylan tells, "We did thousands of push-ups and press-ups in prison, but when I first tried a downward dog, I couldn't even hold my own body weight for 10 seconds!"
Justine – who has taught yoga to the All Blacks and Hurricanes – was passionate about volunteering because of her own childhood experiences. She explains, "I grew up with my dad in and out of prison. I don't judge and that's why I was able to go in and see the guys for who they are."
Dylan never missed a class. "What really attracted me to Justine was her willingness to go into hell to teach the fellas. The amount of courage and compassion that takes is massive."
When he was transferred to Rangipo Prison in the central North Island five months later, the pair wrote and a relationship unfolded. Justine revoked her volunteer status and when Dylan was transferred back to Wellington, she visited him three times a week. The loved-up couple spent 3000 hours on the phone over six months.
The dad of six was released in July this year. He stayed at Justine's father's house in Palmerston North, while she juggled the end of her 20-year marriage.
"My husband and I had naturally come to the end of our relationship a long time before that, and he's been amazing," she enthuses.
While not everyone's supported their relationship, Justine's daughter, 15, and 12-year-old twin sons are on board. Says Dylan, "The kids not liking me was my biggest fear, but it's actually been pretty smooth."
Happy to be free at last, Dylan has no intention of returning to jail. "I've spent my whole life working towards this," he says.
Still on parole, Dylan's employed full-time by a home maintenance company. He's also using the carving skills he learnt in prison to make commissioned works. One of the biggest challenges he's worked on since moving in with Justine is communication.
"He also had to learn to accept love. It's been a big transition, but the relationship is awesome," Justine beams. "Navigating how to be with each other includes a lot of empathy and understanding."
Having someone in such close proximity was a challenge for Dylan too. "He was so institutionalised that I couldn't even breathe on him at first!" she laughs.
The reformed addict's been contacted by people from his past and says his focus is on putting boundaries in place to prevent ever going back.
"It means working, having positive social networks and the house," he tells. "I told Justine the other day I love the kids coming home because it fills up with laughter."
Dylan – who recently spoke at a Yoga Education in Prisons Trust seminar – says he's in it for the long haul. "I've got to do the work to make sure we stay healthy and happy," he tells. "I've spent my whole life working towards this."

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