Conjugal Visits: Preserving family bonds behind bars

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Most of us assume that prison life precludes any private contact between inmates and their significant others. After all, that's one of the penalties of going to prison. But then what about conjugal visits? The term has an old-fashioned ring to it, evoking images of prisoners' wives sneaking into the big house while the guards turn a blind eye. But conjugal visits actually do take place in a handful of states as a means to preserve family relationships during the period of incarceration.

A Brief Look into the History of Conjugal Visits

Interestingly, the origins of the conjugal visit had more to do with encouraging work than preserving marital relationships. The earliest program dates back to 1918 when James Parchmann, the warden at Mississippi State Penitentiary, introduced conjugal visits as an incentive for inmates to work harder. Sex was used as the proverbial dangling carrot for increasing inmate productivity.

Over time, the system proved quite effective. So over the next 40 years, new prisons included special buildings specifically designed for Sunday "visits." Today, conjugal visitation programs, also known as the Extended Family Visit, only survive in six states: California, Connecticut, Mississippi, New Mexico, New York and Washington.

Modern Conjugal Visits

Although conjugal programs are still used as an incentive for good behavior, they are no longer applied as a means to increase work productivity. Today, the conjugal visit program is designed primarily to preserve family bonds. The idea is that supporting these bonds will strengthen the inmate's chances for rehabilitation and lessen rates of recidivism. Thus, most Extended Family Visit programs are limited to inmates and spouses who were legally married prior to incarceration.

A Privilege, not a Right

Typically, the states that offer Extended Family Programs are extremely selective when it comes to choosing who can participate. Not every convict wearing a wedding ring is automatically eligible. Each state's Department of Corrections has its own highly specific set of eligibility rules and requirements. For example, inmates must be serving in a medium security prison or less. They cannot have any recent behavior or rule violations. And once they have jumped through all the necessary hoops, the prisoner must go through a mandatory health screening.

On the other side, those wishing to visit the prisoner must also qualify for eligibility. A spouse must (1.) be on the prisoner's approved visitor list (2.) provide proof of relation (3.) pass a background check (4.) submit to a search and (5.) dress appropriately. In California, the list of banned clothing is extensive but common sense. Transparent clothing, bare midriffs, strapless attire, and anything with obscene or offensive language or drawings won't make it past security. In Connecticut, the Department of Corrections tells visitors not to wear "revealing, seductive, or offensive clothing or attire that draws undue attention."

So, just where do these visits take place?

Prison scenes in movies often show couples on the phone separated by glass or, at best, sitting in a cafeteria patrolled by watchful guards. This is where we return to the idea of special buildings for family visits. Inmates who qualify for visits are furnished with private, apartment-style settings within the prison walls.

As the name implies, Extended Family Visits are not limited simply to spouses. In most states, up to three family members can be present at a visit. The time in the apartment allows the family unit to act as a whole. Internationally, the conjugal visit is seen as an important part of the prisoner's interaction with the outside world - a vivid reminder of life on the other side of the prison walls. In Russia, visitors can bring food and civilian clothing for the prisoner. In Canada, the apartments are designed to look like homes. Some even have gardens and barbecues.

In the US, Extended Family Visit programs are justified by 5 of the 6 participating states on the grounds that it helps preserve the family. The hope is that maintaining familial relationships during incarceration will motivate prisoners to improve their behavior both behind bars and upon release.