The phrase is well known in popular culture – conjugal visits means private alone time with a significant other while in prison. We all understand the connotation of conjugal visits, but allow me to spell it out. Yes, inmates are permitted to engage in sexual relations with their spouse during conjugal visits. However, many times these visitations are not used for intimacy at all. A lot of prisoners who earn this right choose to have family members come to see them, in an effort to remain close with those who matter most. In New York, 52 percent of these visits did not involve spouses.
Where Are Conjugal Visits Allowed?
As recently as 1995, 17 states had conjugal visit programs, although federal prisons never allowed it.
Today, only four states still allow conjugal visits: California, Connecticut, New York and Washington.
New Mexico and Mississippi cancelled their programs within the past two years.
How Did the Conjugal Visit Program Start?
The very first prison to allow conjugal visits was Parchman Farm (now Mississippi State Penitentiary). Parchman farm began as a labor prison camp for black men in Mississippi which was a blatant attempt to keep slavery alive 50 years after the end of the Civil War.
Prison authorities believed that if black men were allowed to have sexual intercourse, they would be more productive.
They also believed that black men had stronger sex drives. Therefore, every weekend, women would be driven in by the bus load to fraternize with the prisoners. There was no state control or legal status, the visits were simply thought to encourage surviving a six day work week of harsh labor and conditions, not to mention racist guards.
Over the years, conjugal visits evolved to spending more time with family. Even the aforementioned Parchman Farm had cleaned up the act by the 1960s; visits were sanctioned, furlough programs had begun, and cabins were built so inmates could spend time alone with their significant other. The prison would even provide toys for the family.
Following their model, conjugal visit programs saw a steady and fast rise in use. It was touted as a model of rehabilitation after a reporter paid a visit to Parchman Farm and declared it, “the wave of the future.”
Conjugal Visit Rules
Good behavior is an obvious requirement for earning family and conjugal visitation rights, but there’s a bit more to it than that. For the most part, the rules surrounding family visits are the same; they must be in medium security or lower prisons, and they must not have been convicted of sexual assault. However, each state has their own protocol for selecting which inmates have earned the privilege of family visitation:
- Connecticut: Inmates cannot be level 4 or above in close custody (levels are on a scale of 1-5 and refers to how much they are monitored by guards on a day-to-day basis). They cannot be a member of a gang, be on restrictive status, or class A or class B disciplinary offenses within the past 12 months prior to requesting involvement. The spouse cannot come alone; other eligible family members must participate.
- New York: This state and California are the only ones that allow visitation for same-sex couples. Proof of marriage must also exist.
- California: Inmates and visiting family members are subject to a search every four hours.
- Washington: There are a long list of requirements that inmates and visitors alike must meet before being allowed to participate in the visitation program. There are a slew of disallowed crimes, along with minimum time served, active participation in a reentry program, and housing status rules to qualify. If there are two family members in the same prison, joint visits can be arranged pending approval.
The length of the visit varies from six hours to an entire weekend, which is determined by the supervisor of the prison on a case by case basis. And just as there are eligibility requirements for prisoners, the same can be said for those who wish to visit them. Apart from the verification of the relationship, visitors must also be free of crime.
- If a family member other than a spouse, such as brother or sister, wishes to visit, it will be scrutinized closely.
- If a child is participating, a birth certificate showing that the inmate is their biological father is required.
- If the inmate is a step-father, he must have been present during the child’s formative years (ages 7-12). There must also be consent from the child’s legal guardian.
- The visitor cannot be on parole, or subject to criminal drug charges.
On top of these requirements is a good deal of paperwork which needs to be filled out. With all of the supervision and background checks, it would be extremely difficult for anything sinister to happen. To inmates and their family, visitation is purely about spending time with the one’s they love. So why are so many states stopping it?
Why Have Visitation Programs Been Discontinued?
As previously stated, there were 17 states with visitation programs 20 short years ago; today there are only four. The reasons for this have varied slightly, one of which being public opinion. People just don’t think criminals should have access to anything, much less time with family members. Some even get upset when they learn inmates have access to health care. Most of these people probably fail to realize that those convicted of violent crimes are not allowed to participate in family visitation programs.
Another reason is claims of contraband being snuck in and babies being conceived during these visits. But no numbers are given to back up these claims, and they appear unfounded at best as a result. The Corrections Commissioner for Mississippi even stated that they provide inmates with contraception during their visits. While there are no numbers to back up these claims, they try to use others to convince everyone that it’s too expensive.
The main reason widely given is budget cuts. That was the fallback for Mississippi and New Mexico when they cancelled their programs. In New Mexico, the program cost $120,000 a year. Their 2016 budget totals $6.2 billion. The cost of keeping the program active amounts to less than one-five hundredth of one percent of the state budget. The median household income in New Mexico is $43,782, which means that, divided evenly amongst the average taxpayer, everyone would only contribute about two cents each to a family visitation program. Yet somehow, the benefits don’t outweigh the cost.
Why Should Visitation Programs Continue?
At a rate of approximately $32,000 per year for each inmate, it’s been well documented how much it costs to keep someone in prison. Overcrowding is also a huge problem, which has many causes. But where family visitation comes into the picture is its documented ability to reduce recidivism, which show that 76 percent of those released from state prisons are arrested again within five years. Initial studies have found that visitation programs are responsible for lowering parole violations by 25 percent, but it could be higher than that according to an older study, which suggests recidivism was decreased by 67 percent because of visitation programs.
Conjugal and family visits also reduce occurrences of sexual violence in prisons by 75 percent.
This is a number too large to ignore, because the snowball effect here is that it also drastically lowers the rate of sexually transmitted diseases between prisoners.
Then there is evidence that is hard to quantify. Prison guards have stated that prisoners who have access to visitation are generally happier, and are encouraged to keep up their good behavior in order to keep earning visitation privileges, or perhaps even early release. This is why prisons in the four states that still allow it have changed the name from “conjugal visits” to “family visits.” There is more to it than just intimacy; there is connection that these families are trying to maintain. If the prisoner is able to interact with the person or people for whom he will be responsible upon release, it will only motivate them to work harder to never put them through it again.