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.