Family & Corrections Network
Conjugal Visitation: A U.S. Perspective
A research paper presented to Tyler Fletcher, Associate Professor, in partial fulfillment of the requirements for Criminal Justice 650, University of Southern Mississippi, March 1977.
by Kevin Wright
USM Box 6928 Hattiesburg, MS 39406 firstname.lastname@example.org
Conjugal visitation is not provided to most married or unmarried inmates in U.S. prisons. First implemented in Mississippi prisons, conjugal visitation programs have been successful in other states such as California and New York. Conjugal visits give inmates the opportunity to keep the family unit together. By doing so, inmates are more likely to have lower recidivism rates and are easier to manage while serving their sentences. There is a need for new research on conjugal visitation programs. Past research has shown that these programs are a valuable rehabilitative tool for the criminal justice system. If these programs can be used to reintegrate offenders back into the community, then they should be used on a larger scale.
There are few jurisdictions in the United States which afford inmates the privilege of conjugal visitation in their correctional facilities. The lack of conjugal visitation programs in penal institutions; subsequently, has resulted in a scarcity of scholarly literature on the topic. However, some of the more notable studies of conjugal visitation programs in the United States will be discussed here. There is great public demand for the abolition of inmate privileges in the United States. The thought of inmates enjoying themselves while serving a punitive prison sentence is largely unacceptable to innocent, American citizens who fall prey to criminal acts. This "get tough"philosophy on punishing criminals is not overly interested in rehabilitating inmates nor is it interested in alternative programs which may reduce recidivism rates. The focus is on the incarceration of criminals not the reformation of them. Obviously, this type of thinking does not welcome the implementation of conjugal visitation programs in American correctional facilities.
The reduction of privileges such as conjugal visitations leave correction administrators little to work with in their dealings with inmates. These administrators need some type of bargaining tool to induce inmates to behave accordingly. Having no incentives to offer the inmates may directly inhibit the rehabilitative process. The state of Mississippi allows conjugal visitations; however, recently the state House Penitentiary Committee chairman Bennett Malone, who describes the state prisons as country clubs, has called for the abrogation of the program. In recent years, lawmakers of the state have stripped inmates of other privileges such as: lifting weights, radios, televisions, magazines, etc. This type of legislation makes Mississippi Corrections Commissioner Steve Puckett's job of correcting state offenders much more difficult and may place his correctional staff in further danger (1).
Mississippi legislatures are not alone in their attempt to leave inmates with no privileges. The trend is mirrored throughout much of the country. Legislatures are continuously creating laws which are supposed to reduce crime and to make the public feel safe. However, creating statutes that abolish inmate privileges leave correctional officials with volatile prisons that serves as incubators for violence and a birthplace of subversive behavior. Not all inmates are serving life sentences. The majority of prisoners are released. The "lock'em up and throw away the key" attitude is bad policy. If offenders are becoming worse criminals while serving their sentences and then being released back into society, then correctional institutions are not serving their purpose. Policymakers must re-evaluate the policies they create with the end result in mind.
It would be a futile argument to make by saying that conjugal visitation would be a panacea for rehabilitating inmates, but if the programs offer some benefits they should receive a close look from both policymakers and correctional administrations. Where conjugal visitation programs do exist, they are nearly without exception reserved for married inmates. While married inmates do not make up the majority of most prison populations, their numbers are significant. (2) Obviously, the incarceration of a family member will have some degree of stress on the family unit. If it is possible to keep these families together throughout the sentence, then the chances of rehabilitation will be greater. (3)
Before conjugal visitation programs can be evaluated fairly, there must be some understanding of the true definition of conjugal. This term is most often a synonym for sex. This is not altogether true. Married couples in society are understood to have rights inherent to marriage and these are called conjugal rights. Sex is but one component of these rights. Conjugal rights are those which enable married persons to enjoy associating with one another, sympathizing together, confiding together, creating domestic happiness, sharing a home together, having certain property rights which are endemic to marriage, preparing meals together, as well as having intimacies with one another. (4) Conjugal visitation programs can and should be more than inmates simply having sex with their spouses. When applicable, it should involve those other variables which make a marriage so dynamic. Maintaining family ties is a very laudable goal that correctional administrators must at the very least try to achieve. Strong family ties are so important in the rehabilitative process and are shown to inhibit recidivism. (5) The possibility of salvaging the family unit while a spouse is incarcerated will take correctional programs that encourage and promote normal family behavior. The family, correction officials and their staff play a major role in successfully bringing an inmate back into society.
Conjugal visitations programs in American penal institutions were first created at the Mississippi State Penitentiary in Parchman in 1918. (6) However, conjugal visits may have been at Parchman since its conception in 1900 when the first warden, James Parchman, also a plantation manager, used the physical aspect of conjugal visits to compel black inmates to work harder in the cotton fields during the week. Conjugal visits at Parchman started out as strictly a management tool and had little to do with fortifying family ties. (7) Originally, more often than not, prison officials allowed Negro prostitutes to come to the prison on Sundays to give the black inmates sexual favors. (8) Furthermore, the sexual visits were exclusively for the black male inmates and being married was not a requirement. Prison officials kept the prostitutes in the administrative building during the day and allowed them to roam freely from camp to camp during the night. It was thought that the white inmates could control their libidos more than the black inmates. The blacks were believed to be naturally promiscuous and were in greater need of sexual outlets than their white counterparts. This visitation policy was nothing more than a manipulative, managerial tool. (9)
The construction of the first building specifically designed for conjugal visitation was around the 1940s. Most inmates and their wives or significant others were forced to have relations in the prisoners' sleeping quarters where they would hang blankets to gain a small bit of privacy, until the inmates began building their own conjugal visiting houses. (10) The inmates made these houses out of spare lumber and any materials they could get their hands on. These make shift houses or lean-tos , for some unknown reason, were painted red thus explaining why they were called "red houses" for so long. Today, those facilities which house inmates who are eligible for conjugal visits have the visitation rooms built in. Conjugal visitation rooms are included in the architectural design. Don Cabana, former warden of the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman, states that if the state was ever going to abandon conjugal visitations, it lost the chance by building the conjugal facilities. (11)
After the conjugal visits became more respectable, the white male inmates were given the privilege. This occurred in the 1940s. (12) Braswell and Cabana speculate that the white inmates, after being denied the privilege for so long, probably offered very little resistance in participating in the program. (13)
Not only are conjugal visitation programs a rarity in American prisons, it is almost as unlikely that such a liberal program would have found its birthplace in Parchman, Mississippi. The conservative ideology which is so prevalent in Mississippi politics, especially from the beginning to the middle of this century, would have aborted the program from the onset. Professor Columbus Hopper explains this odd relationship between conjugal visits and Mississippi prisons in his book, Sex in Prison: The Mississippi Experiment with Conjugal Visiting. The book which was completed in 1969 is one of the, if not the only, book that is written entirely about conjugal visitation in an American prison. Even though the book is twenty-eight years old, most of the policies and procedures are still the same.
Actually, the conjugal visit was in accord with several factors which reflected Mississippi's societal makeup. Hopper attributes the rurality of the state, plantation styled social system, economic motivation, the small camp infrastructure, and at this time, the segregation of the races. Prisons are not only a culture, but are a part of the culture of society. Many of the same beliefs or norms in communities are found in prisons, Parchman's visitation program is a byproduct of Mississippi's unique prison design as well as the community in general. (14)
The fact that Parchman is stuck in the rural, Mississippi Delta is a significant one. Unlike urban communities, the solidarity of rural communities are founded on informal, personal, and noncontractual associations. The staff at Parchman, which is from surrounding rural communities, is accustom to less standardization, less superficial, and typically have a more direct, personal relationship with the inmates than a correctional staff at an urbanized institution. The provincial background of Parchman's officials was vital to the creation of its conjugal visitation program. At the time, informality prevailed. New programs could be developed by officials without legislative acts thus avoiding the time consuming bureaucratic process. The noncontractual and rustic infrastructure of Parchman actually increased the possibility of a conjugal visitation program being established as opposed to institutions held within the restrictions of an urbanized community. (15)
The stability and the role of the family is more important in the country than in the cities. There is respect for the family unit in rural communities. Mississippians have never showed much opposition to the conjugal visitation programs at any of the state's prisons or satellite prisons. With few exceptions, it is accepted by most state officials. There are relatively few state newspaper articles discussing the program. The program has been left up to the discretion of correctional officials from the beginning. The program has never been established by law. It has simply manifested out of the rural emphasis on maintaining and stabilizing the family. (16)
For the longest time, the inmates actually were in charge of enforcing the conjugal visitation policy. They did not have any written policy but enforced the policy by word of mouth. (17) What made Parchman somewhat unique was that the inmates were housed in "camps" sporadically located across the twenty thousand acres of land. For instance, the distance from the entrance to the rear of the prison covered six miles. (18) During the 1960s and 1970s the inmate camps, on the average, were separated by a distance of two miles. Parchman held approximately two thousand male inmates and fewer than a hundred women(who were not allowed conjugal visitation privileges until the 1980s). (19) The infrastructure of the camps at Parchman were much more amenable to conjugal visiting than prisons with centralized units. The prison promulgated the days and hours of visitation but each individual camp sergeant and his inmates supervised the visits within the camp. There were approximately eighteen camps at this time with less than half the inmate population being eligible for the visitation privilege. Thus, the number of visitors were relatively small which caused very few security problems. (20)
The small camp structure was a fundamental ingredient in being able to establish a successful conjugal visitation program. Inmates and their visitors were free to roam around without excessive interference from the prison staff. (21) Cabana acknowledges that even though Parchman penitentiary had a less than glamorous reputation due to the deplorable camp conditions that on visitation days one could find inmates and families enjoying themselves while sitting under trees picnicing, fathers throwing the baseball with their sons, or families simply lying together across blankets. The former warden explains how his guards rarely patrolled the grounds. This job was given to the convicts who as he describes,"weren't about to screw-up." (22) Interestingly, while the married inmates were taking advantage of the "red housesÓ, the single inmates often watched over the children. This spirit of cooperation is very advantageous in prisons as well as communities. Hopper points out that small camps are essential in maintaining conjugal visitations. (23) However, Mississippi's inmate population is now close to fourteen thousand and is anticipated to be twenty-eight thousand by the year 2002. (24) Only time will tell whether or not Mississippi's unique visitation program will sustain the influx of an increasingly youthful prison population which is unmarried and ineligible for the conjugal visitation program.
The Mississippi Department of Corrections (MDOC) policy openly encourages both the family and friends of inmates to visit them at any of the state correctional facilities. The aim is to raise moral and create better temperament between the inmates. Those inmates receiving visits must have good behavior, hard workers, and are not a security threat. Visitation is a privilege which may be earned by inmates but is not recognized as a right by the state of Mississippi. (25) The fact that Mississippi currently has a written policy on conjugal visitation, three day visitation, etc. is due to the increase of the inmate population and added legal responsibilities which has forced the MDOC to formalize the whole process.
Upon admission to any of Mississippi's facilities, inmates will be made aware of the rules and regulations of visitation. Visitors will only be furnished this material per their request. The responsibility will ultimately be for the inmate to brief potential visitors of visitation rules. Each institutional superintendent will create procedures for allowing and denying visitors access to the institutions. The visitor must be eighteen years of age unless accompanied by their parent/guardian and is a member of the immediate family. Probationers and parolees must have special permission to visit an inmate. All inmates will be provided with a copy of his/her approved visitor list and the inmates will have to notify all visitors. (26)
Before an inmate can be permitted visits, the inmate must be classified in one of the following behavioral management levels which will determine eligibility, they are as follows:
1. Behavior Management Level I- These inmates are not allowed any visitation except by attorneys, clergy, and law enforcement.
2. Behavior Management Level II- Inmates are permitted visitation with only immediate family members once a month. These inmates do not include conjugal visits.
3. Behavior Management Level III- Visitation is permitted twice per month with conjugal visits being allowed for married inmates.
4. Behavior Level Management IV- Inmates are permitted visitation with approved visitors four times a month and married inmates having the conjugal privilege.
*** Contact and conjugal visits are prohibited at Close Confinement/Maximum Security Units. (27)
The state corrections commissioner gives each superintendent of the three prisons and satellite prisons the authority to establish conjugal visitation programs. The facilities used for the conjugal visits are free of charge to inmates and families. Correctional staff are not authorized to accept payment for the usage. (28) However, the unofficial and unauthorized practice of some camp sergeants is to accept money from inmates who are either not married and want a sexual visit, a married inmate who wants a sexual visit from someone other than his/her spouse, or an inmate that has had a rules infraction and simply wants the sergeant to look the other way. Lack of pay often lures correctional staff into accepting money from inmates in exchange for favors. (29) Again, camp sergeants use the conjugal privilege to manage the inmates in their camps. The inmate populations in Mississippi are growing so rapidly, plus a number of other privileges have been taken away, that if the state were to abolish conjugal visiting, it should keep the S.W.A.T. team on stand by at all time. Cabana iterates,"you can't have all sticks and no carrots. Conjugal visiting is an important carrot for the MDOC." (30)
Before an inmate and their "spouse" are allowed to participate in the program, proof of marriage is mandatory. Each institution will furnish clean linens for each and every participate in the program free of cost to the inmates. MDOC emphasizes that any conduct found to debase or reduce the value of the program will result in the appropriate disciplinary action whether it be inmates or the staff. The inmate and spouse are expected to leave the facility as nice or better than they found it. (31)
A problem which must now be dealt with in the conjugal visitation program is the spread of HIV. Inmates which are known to have the virus are denied the conjugal privilege if their partner is not infected. If both the inmate and the spouse are HIV positive, they may continue the visits if the Commissioner of Corrections grants a written petition. If a spouse of an inmate is a non-infected person but still desires to participate in the program, then, upon petitioning the Commissioner, may state in writing that the couple will practice safe sex. This type of visit will be at the discretion of the Commissioner or his authorized staff. (32)
Some of Mississippi's prisons are equipped with apartments designed to make the somewhat artificial conjugal visit more realistic for inmates and families. This supplement to the original conjugal visitation program is called the Three-Day Family Visitation program. The inmate and their entire family may live in the apartment for three days with only periodic checks from security. The staff is instructed to make the security checks with in a discrete manner so to avoid embarrassing or harassing the participating family. The inmate will not be required to report to work or school while on the three-day leave and will still receive earned time as if still working. Families having to travel over five hundred miles to visit an inmate family member may be allowed a five-day visit. Unlike, the regular conjugal visitation facilities the apartments are not for free. Inmates and families must pay a fee for the usage of the apartments. (33)
There are many differences in the conjugal visitation program which Hopper described in Sex in Prison and the program which exists today. The conditions and facilities may be cleaner and more standardized today, but something may have been lost with increase in formalities. The program was created without explicit rules or formal planning. The nature of the penitentiary assisted the program. There was not even a written policy until the 1980s. Now, Parchman and other prisons in the state are being forced to build bed after bed due to the increase in prisoners. The small camp units which once held, at the most, two hundred inmates are now packed to capacity. (34) Mississippi is working toward increasing its prison population by almost one hundred and ten percent by the early 2000s. (35) The centralization of not only Mississippi's prisons, but all prisons that are being forced to house inmates in mass cell blocks will have an inverse effect on rehabilitative programs such as conjugal visits. Mass incarceration is based on security not rehabilitation. (36) There should be room on prison grounds to facilitate rehabilitative programs without jeopardizing security.
Hopper offered a very laudatory view of Parchman's program. He had written several articles on the program as well as a book. He knew the officials well which accounted for him being allowed to do so much research at a prison which was surrounded by a cloud of mystery. The problem is that his account of the program may be biased because if he were to give an actual account of not only families visiting but of the prostitutes, girlfriends, and the monetary pay-offs, prison officials would have probably have stopped Hopper's visits after the first article had been written. Family ties being saved may well have been a real side- effect of conjugal visits but some say it had more to do with work production. (37)
An extensive 1972 study also had very positive findings on inmate-family relationships. Holt and Miller, while studying family visitation programs in California, discovered several proactive effects of these types of programs. The thesis of their study was that parole success is greater for those inmates that were able to maintain family ties while incarcerated. Inmates who did not receive visits were six times as likely to be returned to prison than inmates receiving three or more visits. The researchers view the family as a useful correctional technique and treatment instrument. The point is also made that it is much cheaper to utilize the family in the rehabilitation process. There was also a strong motivational factor for those inmates receiving family visits. (38)
Inmates ineligible for participation in the program is a concern for correctional officials. Holt and Miller found that inmates not participating showed no signs of resentment. (39) As did Hopper who found that almost ninety-percent of inmates in Parchman said they felt no bitterness for the other inmates participating in conjugal visits. (40) Inmates who are not eligible to participate in the conjugal visits are not going to give much trouble because they know if they cause a stir, it will blow up in everyone's face and nobody will receive the conjugal privilege. If the inmates can keep the visits quiet, they know that there is a chance that they may get a visit every now and then. (41)
The New York State Department of Correctional Services has the Family Reunion Program which aims to strengthen family ties to help inmates have a smooth adjustment upon release. The program is similar to Mississippi's and California's conjugal visitations which consists of the family having overnight visits in private apartments. The program has yielded results such as improving inmate discipline and the New York inmates were less likely to be reincarcerated. Participating families have shown more cohesiveness and adaptiveness (both husband/wife relations and parent/child relations). (42) Despite these success stories from California, Mississippi, and New York, many correctional departments are not taking advantage of a valuable rehabilitative tool, the inmate's family. The postrelease relationship between an inmate and family is difficult. Correction administrators should encourage and push for family involvement at the beginning, the middle, and at the end of an inmate sentence. A successful transition into the community will inhibit recidivism significantly. (43)
Schafer points out the fact that family relationships affecting the rehabilitation of prisoners has been proven in several states, it has yet to be welcomed on the national level. Besides the three states previously mentioned, South Carolina, Washington, Connecticut, Minnesota, New Mexico, and Georgia have some form of a family visitation program. (44) There is a need for state correctional departments to cautiously experiment in some type of family visitation to strengthen both the family and the societal bond.
One of the few negative reviews of conjugal programs pointed out the reasons on why these programs would not be implemented on a wide scale. They include: 1. negative attitudes of non-participating inmates; 2. facilities are not available and are probably not going to be available; 3. problems with security, abuse of power, and common-law relationships; 4. no administrative support; 5. the sexual nature of the visits; and 6. "welfare babies." (45) Another is the exchange of contraband which is easy to exchange in relaxed security conditions. (46) However, all of these problems are not without the possibility of being resolved. Careful planning in the processing of visitors in and out of prisons can alleviate many of the problems that are associated with the program. Moreover, correctional officials can devise a classification system to successfully screen out problematic inmates. Qualified correctional administrators should not have a problem in implementing a successful conjugal visitation program. The arguments against conjugal visitation programs are insubstantial. Conjugal visitation can be an asset to the criminal justice system if used wisely and responsibly.
(1) Hattiesburg American (MS), 19 January 1997.
(2) R. Flanagan and K. Maguire, Sourcebook of criminal justice statistics, (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1987).
(3) Norman Holt and Donald Miller, Explorations in Inmate-Family Relationships (California: Department of Corrections, Research Division, January 1972).
(4) Steven H. Gifis, Barron's Law Dictionary (New York: Barron's Educational Series, Inc., 1996).
(5) Bonnie E. Carlson and Neil Cervera, "Inmates and Their Families: Conjugal Visits, Family Contact, and Family Functioning," Criminal Justice and Behavior 18(3), (September 1991): 330.
(6) Columbus Hopper, Sex in Prison: The Mississippi Experiment with Conjugal Visiting (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1969), 52.
(7) Don Cabana, Interview, by Kevin Wright (18 February 1997).
(8) Hopper, Sex in Prison, 53.
(9) William Banks Taylor, Brokered Justice: Race, Politics, and Mississippi 1798-1992 (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1993), 94-95.
(10) Hopper, Sex in Prison, 53-54.
(11) Cabana, Interview 1.
(12) Hopper, 80.
(13) Michael Braswell and Donald A. Cabana, "Conjugal Visitation and Furlough Programs for Offenders in Mississippi," New England Journal of Law 2(1), (Fall 1975): 68.
(14) Hopper, 65-66.
(15) Ibid., 68-69.
(16) Ibid., 71.
(17) Cabana, Interview, 1.
(18) Donald A. Cabana, Death at Midnight: The Confession of an Executioner, Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1996, 39..
(19) Ibid., 39,127.
(20) Hopper, 77.
(21) Ibid., 79.
(22) Cabana, Interview. 1.
(23) Hopper, 79.
(24) Sourcebook of Criminal Justice Statistics. (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1995).
(25) Mississippi Department of Corrections, Inmate Visitation, Conjugal Visitation, and Three Day Visitation, by authority of the Commissioner, (policy number 5.17).
(29) Cabana, Interview 1.
(31) Mississippi Department of Corrections, Conjugal Visitation.
(34) Cabana, Death at Midnight, 39.
(35) Sourcebook of Criminal Justice, 1995.
(36) Hopper, 144.
(37) Cabana, 1.
(38) Norman Holt and Donald Miller, Explorations in Inmate-Family Relationships, California: Department of Corrections, Research Division, (January 1972).
(40) Hopper, 98.
(41) Cabana, Interview 1.
(42) Bonnie E. Carlson and Neil Cervera, 320.
(43) Ibid., 330.
(44) N.E. Schafer, "Prison Visiting Policies and Practices, International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology 35(3), 264-265.
(45) D.R. Johns, "Alternatives to Conjugal Visiting," Federal Probation 35(3), 49.
(46) Cabana, Interview1.