This article appears in The Incarceration Issue, a special edition of VICE Australia.
The idea of conjugal visits irks a lot of people. Someone who knows this better than most is 24-year-old Perth woman, Bree-Anna. When her fiancé Travis was sentenced to 36 months in a WA prison for stealing construction equipment, she enquired about conjugal visits as a way to help safeguard their relationship. They had plans together: they'd been trying for a baby and saving to buy a house. Normal couple stuff. "It was about spending more than a couple of hours with him," she says of her request. "I felt maintaining the trust in our relationship would make coming out a lot easier for him."
The request was flatly denied. The response from WA Corrections mirrored that of most Australian prison authorities: sexual contact with inmates is neither condoned nor acceptable.
After being rejected, Bree-Anna did something unusual among partners of prisoners—she started a Facebook page to petition the state's policy. Through 'Make Conjugal Visits Legal in Western Australia/Worldwide' she hoped to bring attention to the issue and network with others in similar situations. Her plan was to let the cause percolate, gather support, and gain attention, before she took it to parliament.
At the time of writing, about a year and a half after it was created, the page has 82 likes—81, not counting mine.
So why the lack of traction? There are currently over 35,000 people in Australian prisons. There are multiple support forums for partners of inmates. Surely there are more than 81 people who are pro-conjugal access.
Bree-Anna thinks the lack of visible support is driven by a sense of shame. Despite meeting and speaking with several women who felt the same way, and receiving a stream of private messages wishing her and her campaign luck, she believes the idea of liking the page and having it show up in newsfeeds put a lot of people off.
These women weren't criminals, many had children, and all were trying to hold together their families while their partners were incarcerated. But what worried them more was being judged. "People just think you're some dirty ho who wants to have sex with a prisoner," Bree-Anna says.
And public opinion can matter. Bree-Anna explains how she lost her childcare job when parents complained about leaving their children with the partner of a convicted criminal. Then there's the Facebook page itself, which regularly receives posts from survivors of crime asking why criminals should be afforded any comfort at all.
These aren't surprising positions. As kids, we're taught that prisons are places for bad people, and that bad people deserve to be punished. And while we eventually learn concepts like rehabilitation and redemption, it's hard to shake the feeling that jail should be hard, tough, and unforgiving.
Despite all the rhetoric, our prisons today are still more focused on punishment than crime prevention or community safety.
Professor Peter Norden is a prison reform advocate and former Pentridge chaplain who believes otherwise. He's spent 20 years lobbying for conjugal visits in Victoria after undertaking study tours in Sweden and Holland in the 1990s. There, he encountered regular conjugal access and, amazingly, the possibility of weekend family leave each month. "These programs worked very successfully and were supported by government, media, and community because of the known impact of family relationships on reoffending," he says.
In Australia, certain states—including WA—let prisoners out to visit their families and assist with the reintegration process. But these programs only cater to those nearing the end of their sentences, and few get to access them at all.
Professor Norden explains that visitation rights are regularly withheld or cancelled for breaches of prison discipline, regardless of its impact on families and the wider community. "Despite all the rhetoric, our prisons today are still more focused on punishment than crime prevention or community safety."
Since the 70s, there have been intermittent pushes to make these visits more available, but felons having sex on taxpayer-bought sheets is a hard picture to sell. Victoria is currently the only state that allows the visits. These are folded into atypical programs like Beechworth Correctional Centre's off-site family visits, which take place at a dedicated property near the prison.
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In 2009 the ACT debated the idea, and minimum-to-maximum security prison Alexander Maconochie Centre attempted to roll out a conjugal visit program in 2011. At the time, then–Corrections Minister John Hargreaves went as far as telling the ABC: "One of the biggest problems of avoiding recidivism is the restoration of the relationship between a prisoner and his partner when they come out… If in fact that relationship on an emotional level is maintained throughout the period of incarceration, then we will actually have restored that family."
The ACT's efforts eventually stalled over concerns of possible security threats. Only 10 visits were carried out before authorities hit pause on the program. In a call to VICE, a spokesperson from the Centre said with no legislation presently allowing for the visits in the ACT, they can't be made available.
More recently, Professor Michael Levy, the director of Corrections Health at the Australian National University, flagged the lack of conjugal visits as one of the biggest shortcomings facing Australia's prison system. "They'll never take the family outside as a primary consideration," he said as part of his presentation at the Prisons 2015 conference last October. "We need to demystify [conjugal visits] and not come to it with expectations that it's strictly about sexual behaviours. It's actually more complex social behaviours. I see it as a right, as a human right, and it's the rights of the partners. I think it should be a basic tenet of a humane prison system."
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