Crime, Sentencing Law

Conjugal Visits Are Almost A Thing Of The Past

It’s going to be hard to have an intelligent conversation about conjugal visits on the internet. The juvenile contingent started fapping out inmate sex jokes as soon as they saw the title. Once people get that out of their system, the Republicans will show up to express horror that “criminals” get to do anything other than sit in a dark room, make license plates, or pray to God for forgiveness. Let’s just say that I won’t be reading the comments on this one.

But the New York Times has a great article (gavel bang: ABA Journal) about Mississippi, the state that started conjugal visits, putting an end to the practice.

And yes, they’re stopping it because… Republicans. But the Times reminds us that it’s not like Mississippi started conjugal visits in a moment of liberal reformist flair. The practice is no longer supported by whatever racist theories Mississippi uses to guide its public policy, so it’s time for the visits to be stopped…

First of all, how did we get here? How did we even get to the point where allowing prisoners to have sex breaks became a thing:

The notion of allowing prisoners to have sex was born here [in Mississippi] shortly after Parchman Farm opened in 1903 as a series of work camps on 1,600 acres of rich Delta farmland. Inmates, most of whom were black, were used as free farm labor in an arrangement not that far removed from slavery.

Set in the middle of the birthplace of the blues, Parchman Farm has been the subject of many songs written by classic bluesmen like Bukka White and others who did time here.

The warden at the time believed sex could be used to compel black men to work harder in the fields, according to a history on the practice produced in the 1970s by Tyler Fletcher, who founded the department of criminal justice at the University of Southern Mississippi in 1973. So black prisoners were allowed time on Sunday with spouses or, more often, prostitutes.


Most states have already done away with “conjugal visits” from the purely sexual sense of the privilege. Only five states still have some form of it:

In California and New York, they are called family visits and are designed to help keep families together in an environment that approximates home. Some research shows that they can help prisoners better integrate back into the mainstream after their release.

Visits in those states, and in Washington and New Mexico, can last 24 hours to three days. They are spent in small apartments or trailers, often with children and grandparents, largely left alone by prison guards. Visitors bring their own food and sometimes have a barbecue…

Studies cited by Yale law students in a 2012 review of family visitation programs showed that the programs could work as powerful incentives for good behavior, help reduce sexual activity among prisoners and help strengthen families.

But don’t trouble Mississippi lawmakers with studies from Yale Law students:

Christopher B. Epps, the prison commissioner, plans to end the program Feb. 1, citing budgetary reasons and “the number of babies being born possibly as a result.”…

[S]tate Representative Richard Bennett, Republican of Long Beach, wants the practice stopped, and he said no amount of protest would change his mind.

He said he learned about conjugal visits a few years ago when an elementary school principal told him a student of hers had shown up with a photograph of a new sibling. The student’s mother was incarcerated. The baby had been conceived during a conjugal visit.

In 2012, Mr. Bennett introduced a bill to end the visits. It did not get much attention, so he will try again when the Legislature meets this month. He said he was aware of Mr. Epps’s plans, but wanted a permanent ban. Officials have not offered any figures on the number of babies born or the program’s cost.

You see what they did there? Conjugal visits started as stupid racism with no basis in fact. It’s ending because of stupid racism with no basis in fact. They don’t even care how much it costs or whether prisoner procreation is a statistically significant thing that the state should be worrying about. It’s just “black people having babies? That can’t be good.”

And don’t get me wrong, I’m pretty sure that having a baby with a man who is going to be in prison for the rest of his life is a terrible idea. That’s probably not a great call. But can we have some, you know, research that shows how many people actually have children through conjugal visits versus the family and society benefits to conjugal visits? I’m pretty sure that there’s some level of rape prevention that would make de minimus procreation worth it. I’m sure that there’s some level of “re-entrance into society” benefit that makes it okay if some couples don’t want to wait until the guy is out of prison to have another kid.

But when do facts get in the way of Mississippi? Facts aren’t how they got to be Mississippi in the first place.

Only a handful of states allow conjugal prison visits; which one is dropping its program? [ABA Journal]
As Conjugal Visits Fade, a Lifeline to Inmates’ Spouses Is Lost [New York Times]

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