Mississippi Ending Conjugal Visits for Prisoners

The prison program falls out of favor in its birthplace

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AP

A prisoner at Mississippi's State Penitentiary heads to a conjugal visit on Sept. 9, 1959. The state, which has allowed conjugal visits since since the early 20th century, is ending the practice Feb. 1.

There’s a story Richard Bennett likes to tell about the first time he learned of his state’s conjugal visit program.

Several years ago, a local principal told Bennett, a Republican state representative in Mississippi, about a student who came to school with a picture of her new baby brother. The child had been conceived in prison at a facility that allowed inmates to engage in sexual intercourse. The boy was being raised by his grandmother because both parents were incarcerated.

Bennett kept this story in mind when he drafted legislation in 2012 to end the practice of permitting select inmates to spend private time with their partners. As it turned out, he didn’t need legislation at all.

Beginning Feb. 1, Mississippi will stop allowing conjugal visits, ending a practice it is widely credited with introducing to the modern United States nearly a century ago. Chris Epps, the commissioner of the Mississippi Department of Corrections who made the decision — it did not require legislative action — cited the expense of maintaining the program along with the potential for creating single parents as reasons for the move.

“There are costs associated with the staff’s time, having to escort inmates to and from the visitation facility, supervising personal hygiene and keeping up with the infrastructure of the facility,” Epps said in a statement. “Then, even though we provide contraception, we have no idea how many women are getting pregnant only for the child to be raised by one parent.”

Mississippi is one of just five states to allow conjugal visits, along with California, New Mexico, New York and Washington. (They are not allowed in federal prisons.) The visits — which often take in place in trailers on the prison grounds furnished with soap, beds and condoms — provide married inmates who have a track record of good behavior and a clean bill of health private time with their spouse. While California and New York allow visits for same-sex partners, Mississippi only permits them for married, opposite-sex couples. Four more states — Colorado, Connecticut, Nebraska and South Dakota — allow overnight visitation for children or grandchildren, designed in part to keep families together during incarceration.

The formal practice of conjugal visits began in the U.S. at the start of the 20th century as a way to control African-American prisoners at the Mississippi State Penitentiary. The state ran the prison, a vast patch of cleared forest and former plantation lands in the Mississippi Delta known as Parchman Farm, as a for-profit operation. The thousands of inmates, most of them black, were the free labor. Incentivizing prisoners with the possibility of sex, it was believed, could make them more productive in the fields, according to Heather Thompson, a professor of history at Temple University who studies the U.S. prison system. And more productive prisoners meant more money for the state.

Despite the unseemly founding motivation, conjugal visits came to be viewed by criminologists as a helpful tool to rehabilitate prisoners and keep families intact during incarceration. By the early 1990s, at least 17 states included conjugal visits.

“It’s really a program to prevent recidivism,” says Jorja Leap, a professor of social welfare at UCLA’s Luskin School of Public Affairs. “The idea being that if family ties continue to exist, there’s more of a structure available to them once they have served their term in prison. As preposterous as it sounds, it’s almost viewed as a crime prevention program.”

That view began to change in the late 1980s and early 1990s, according to Leap, when a wave of academic literature advanced the notion that some criminals were incapable of being rehabilitated. That idea fueled a move away from programs like conjugal visits, which were seen as an unnecessary and not in keeping with the emphasis on punishment.

“You’re in there to serve prison time, and you lose that right,” says Rep. Bennett. “The whole purpose of going to prison is to serve your time.”

Proponents of conjugal visits argue that they are an effective tool for encouraging good behavior and reducing prison violence.

“One of the biggest ironies about this is that it flies in the face of absolutely everything that the data shows,” says Thompson. “In the last 40 years, we’ve tried to deal with social problems not through the social service system but through the criminal justice system. As a result, not only do we have massive incarceration rates that are unsustainable, but we have whittled away at basic rehabilitation efforts.”

Thompson points to several studies showing the benefits of conjugal visits, including a November 2012 Yale University survey of state prisons that found them to be a significant incentive for good behavior among inmates. A study in the March 2012 issue of the American Journal of Criminal Justice (AJCJ) concluded that sexual violence in prisons was significantly less in states that allowed them.

Stewart D’Alessio, a criminal justice professor at Florida International University and a co-author of the AJCJ study, says that wardens often like conjugal visits because they are another tool for controlling prisoners.

“They can take it away from them,” D’Alessio says. “No matter how conservative a warden is, you’ll find that most of them tend to be much more liberal in regards to rehabilitation-type programs because that allows them control.”

In Mississippi, state prisons house 22,000 inmates, the second highest imprisonment rate in the nation per capita, according to the U.S. Justice Department. But last year, MDOC Commissioner Epps said that only 155 inmates were allowed conjugal visits. The MDOC says it does not have a cost analysis of the conjugal visit program, “but it does affect the corrections budget, which already has a nearly $30 million deficit,” says MDOC spokesperson Tara Booth.

“My guess is that the cost is actually quite minimal, and I think that’s one of the reasons why you’re not seeing any figures here,” Thompson says.

Bennett, who is still trying to get his bill through the state legislature this year in order to make the ban permanent, says his opposition to conjugal visits is moral, not economic. He believes they foster single-parent families and contribute to the spread of sexually transmitted diseases within prisons. (Inmates must be free of STDs to qualify for conjugal visits in Mississippi.) He acknowledged that he did not have any data to support either belief.

“I see the other side of it,” Bennett says. “But I think that my side outweighs it by far of what’s right.”

In December, when Mississippi announced it would end its program, Kelly Muscolino founded Mississippi Advocates for Prisoners to lobby against the decision. Muscolino’s husband, Michel, is serving a 20-year sentence for armed robbery at the George County Regional Correctional Facility in Lucedale, a medium-security prison. Muscolino is allowed to visit him twice a month. Beginning in February, she will be restricted to sitting across a table from him, allowed only brief hugs and pecks on the cheek.

“It will put a significant strain on our relationship,” Muscolino says, “not so much for the sex, but for the intimacy, that time to hold each other.”

Correction: A previous version of this story stated that Connecticut has conjugal visits. The state has “extended family visits” in which children have to be included.

5 comments
mrsjimenez210
mrsjimenez210

It is disheartening to know that privacy and confidentiality are not held privately when dealing with a certain population. If the Mississippi Commissioner thinks he is doing something constructive, then I beckon him to think again. These inmates are going to be sexually frustrated and will seek ways to satisfy their needs through aggression, rape, masturbation, divorce, promiscuity, and even an increase in HIV. For those who don't know, there are undercover men who satisfy their needs with those who practice homosexuality. These are usually the givers and not receivers. Of all of the ridiculous decisions legislative heads have made this takes the cake. The term "a complete genocide" is not new to the legislative branch. It happened in the Jewish Holocaust, it occurred during Black Slavery, and it is happening again with the minorities who are rapidly becoming the majority. Do you remember how King Herod sent out a decree to kill all of the male children born that were age 2 years and under? Well, this is what is occurring with the conjugal visits issue. No procreation means no continuation of the family line particularly prison families. Oh yes, it is unconstitutional and I will be first in line fighting for as my husband and I have been working on conception ever since we were told that conception was not an option. Lo, and behold, he was arrested and wrongfully arrested and now this idiotic idea. When will citizens continue to give the government authority over our homes and lives? When will we demand the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness? 


This is ludicrous. These politicians want to play God with families and this is going to seriously blow up in their face. Inmates will retaliate and this will cause animosity between COs and inmates interchangeably. On idiotic move gives birth to many wrongs. To be brutally honest, the real criminals are running office. For example, Commissioner Kelly's son was recently on the news for raping a woman and he was never arrested or detained. He still walks free and only God know who else has he taken advantage of to fulfill his sick fantasies. I have respect for all, but this here is going to cause relationships to disintegrate. OH, BUT THAT IS NOT A PROBLEM BECAUSE THE MAJORITY OF THE PRISON POPULATION ARE BLACKS AND HISPANICS, SO IT IS PERMITTED AND NO LEGISLATIVE LAWS HINDER. 


WAKE UP AMERICANS! This will affect everyone. 

skittles48
skittles48

The principal should be ashamed. Something told in trust by a child was told to a state representative. Shame on you for touting that as key to terminating the program. shame ! And we wonder why kids are bringing guns to school. I have this privilege in New York. Most of the families of incarcerated loved ones who live in a state that have family visits has long-since known how this important tool bonds the prisoner to their family and community. It is an important part of the rehabilitation of offenders. As research has shown, a strong community support system is a vital element in the successful transition of offenders from incarceration back into the community. Arguably, the most important correctional tool to assist offenders in maintaining stable family relations is a visitation program that allows for meaningful interaction with the significant persons in their lives. Visitation privileges have been linked to increased positive behavioral adjustment while incarcerated and lower recidivism rates upon release. The idea that prison as a punishment tool only and to take away these visits from prisoners is so off point. The innocent family members are the ones that suffer. We are not the victim that society see's. If you keep these men in cages and treat them like animals. Is that someone you really want released and living next to you ? This Bennett guy is clearly uneducated and very country. The men that take part in this program in New York only 17% return to prison. While the other prisoners who do not take part return to prison at a rate of 68% . So this is really about the prison industry complex. The small cost in running this program when these men are less likely to return to prison is cheaper by far then removing the program and having prisons as a revolving door. Prison families for the majority are not on public assistance no matter what the government would like you to believe.


lordofthefly
lordofthefly

Obama and Eric Holder will be all over this. "It's unconstitutional. It's a violation of civil rights." Blah, blah.

Openminded1
Openminded1

Well that should slow crime down a little in the backward state of Mississippi .

cjh2nd
cjh2nd

@lordofthefly 

i give it 3 days tops. funny how obama only cares about the constitution when it helps his cause, isn't it? if this ban was happening somewhere like wyoming or north dakota, where the prison population is predominantly white, i imagine neither of these incompetent fools would have anything to say on the issue. i mean, some meth-head redneck named skeeter couldn't be either of their sons, so why would they care?


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