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Inmates Are Losing Their Privilege to Get Laid

All but three states have now ended conjugal visit programs for prisoners — but many consider it a useful form of correction.

by Alice Speri
Apr 17 2014, 6:30pm

Photo by Michael Coghlan

Conjugal visits are one of those legends of prison life that have captured the imagination of those on the outside.

Technically speaking, inmates have no constitutional right to have sex with their spouses while serving time. But for decades, state prisons have used their discretion in granting the privilege to deserving inmates in an effort to foster family ties and reduce the restlessness of prison residents.

What most people may not realize, however, is that the practice of giving inmates and their spouses private time during “Sunday visits” — as conjugal visits are often known — is all but extinct.

On Wednesday, New Mexico announced that, starting in May, it will shut down its own conjugal visits program — leaving California, New York, and Washington as the only states that still give the privilege. Federal prisons don't allow conjugal visits.

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The New Mexico Corrections Department said the visits are simply not doing the job, and that there’s no evidence that they reduce recidivism. Instead they’re resulting in pregnancies and STDs, and being used as opportunities to smuggle contraband into prison, according to the statement.

'We have had a few complaints'

“If it had been working, then we’d be okay really saying, ‘well, these other risk factors are mitigated by the fact that it is working,” Alex Tomlin, a spokeswoman with the department, told VICE News. “But it wasn’t working. We were having contraband items brought in, we were having pregnancies happen, and those fathers were not there to raise those children.”

Cutting the program will save the department some $120,000 a year, and the conjugal visits will be substituted by more time for family visits and “seminar days” to be tailored around inmates’ preferences. This will include programs like financial literacy activities and father-son basketball tournaments.

Only about 2 percent of New Mexico’s 7,000 inmates qualified for the visits in the first place.

'It's just like putting a kid in timeout. Do you give them their favorite things?'

But even for those inmates the requirements were strict, as they had to prove they had been married before their sentencing, had kept in touch with their spouses, and had shown good conduct, before they could apply for a visit.

“We are talking about maybe one, two, three visits a year,” Tobin said. “It wasn’t an every Saturday night thing.”

Tobin added that the 6,000 inmates that will qualify for extended family visits were “very receptive” to the idea. Not so much the 150 inmates that just lost their privilege of getting laid.

“We have had a few complaints,” she admitted. “The [department’s] secretary himself has been very honest that if he was an inmate getting conjugal visits, he’d be upset.”

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New Mexico had instituted conjugal visits as a “behavioral management tool” after a gruesome riot that killed more than 33 inmates at the Penitentiary of New Mexico, near Santa Fe, in 1980. But more recently, the program had come under scrutiny after convicted rapist and killer Michael Guzman fathered several children while serving a life sentence.

The state is only the last of many doing away with prisoners’ privilege to have sex. Earlier this year, Mississippi — the first state to institute the practice almost a century ago — closed down its own program.

When they were first granted there, conjugal rights had less to do with preserving families than they did with pushing inmates to work harder, according to some accounts of the practice’s history. “Sex was used as the proverbial dangling carrot for increasing inmate productivity,” a researcher wrote on the subject.

The program soon turned out to be very effective — though conservatives never quite liked it.

"It's just like putting a kid in time out," Mississippi’s Republican congressman Richard Bennett said when the state ended its program. "Do you give them their favorite things?"

“A lot of people believe, why should people who are in prison have conjugal visitations if they are being punished?” Stewart D’Alessio, a criminal justice professor at Florida International University and an expert on the issue, told VICE News. “Most wardens, even if they are conservative, like programs like that because it allows them to maintain control over inmates, because you can take it away from them if they misbehave. But politicians don’t really care about that.”

The shrinking of conjugal visitation privileges across the country, he added, was yet another sign of an incarceration system that is a lot more about punishment than rehabilitation.

“That’s why they are called correctional officers, not guards. Their goal should be to correct,” D’Alessio said about prison officials. “But over time, rehabilitation has faded away. There’s no real rehabilitation in prisons anymore.”

There are some exceptions. Going against the national trend, California extended conjugal visit rights to gay inmates in domestic partnerships in 2007, after pressure from civil rights groups there.

Rights groups have also criticized the current nationwide trend against conjugal visits, which, they say, not only allow inmates to carry on a semblance of family life, but also reduce the widespread issue of sexual violence in prisons.

Cooper “Pete” Misskelley, the former warden of a Mississippi correctional facility, said conjugal visits helped inmates "reform."

“It’s a very important thing to a male inmate,” he told The Grio. “In prison, you have an inmate with his hormones thrashing, locked up with 50 or 60 other men to a tier in a dormant environment. Anything that you can have to lower the tension in this area is a good thing as far as management is concerned.”

A 2012 study by D’Alessio on the effects of conjugal visits compared instances of rape and other sexual offenses in prisons than allowed conjugal visits with those that didn’t, and not surprisingly, prisoners that got to sleep with their spouses were found to be a lot less likely to turn on other inmates.

At least when it came to preventing rape, that study found, “sexual gratification theory” seemed to work.

Photo via Flickr

Follow Alice Speri on Twitter: @alicesperi