So What are the Actual Rules with Conjugal Visits and How Did They Get Their Start?

Japanadian asks: How do conjugal visits work in real life?

While in the last couple decades in the United States, various states have rapidly been putting an end to so-called conjugal visits, it turns out their benefit to prisoners, wardens, and the general public are surprisingly high, including in the long run saving enormous sums of money for John Q. Taxpayer, which is presumably why a huge percentage of the rest of the world allows them, among certain moral arguments in favor of such. So how do conjugal visits actually work? How did the program get its start in the first place, and why are countries like Britain and the United States so against it?

To begin with, in Britain, conjugal visits aren’t a thing, though in some cases when prisoners who have been locked up for a long period are getting close to their release date, if they are considered particularly low risk for committing crimes or going off on their merry way, they may be allowed to have family leave time for brief periods. This is time meant to help re-acclimate them to the world outside of prison and get their affairs in order, including re-connecting with family and friends, looking for work, etc.- all as a way to try to help said person hit the ground running once fully released.

Moving across the pond to the United States, first, it’s important to note that prisoners in federal custody and maximum security prisons are not allowed conjugal visits. Further, in the handful of states that do allow conjugal visits, prisoners and their guests must meet a stringent set of guidelines including full background checks for any visitors. On the prisoner’s side, anyone who committed a violent crime, has a life sentence, is a sex offender, and other such serious crimes are also not eligible. Further, in Connecticut, if an inmate is a member of a gang or even thought to be so, they are also banned from conjugal visits. On top of that, pretty much everywhere, any inmate who does anything wrong whatsoever while in prison also finds themselves either temporarily or permanently banned from such visits.

This brings us to how the whole conjugal visit thing got its start in the United States; the earliest official-ish policy with regards to allowing, in this case male, prisoners to enjoy the company of the fairer sex started in the Mississippi State Penitentiary (Parchman Farm) in the early 20th century. This was instituted as a way to get its black prisoner populace, who were used pretty literally as slave labor, to work harder while working the 20,000 acres of land at this institution. In fact, the superintendent of the prison at the time was actually a farmer himself, which is why he was hired to oversee things. As historian David M. Oshinsky, author of Worse Than Slavery: Parchman Farm and the Ordeal of Jim Crow Justice, notes, “[The Administrator’s] annual report to the legislature is not of salvaged lives. It is a profit and loss statement, with the accent on the profit.”

Prisoners who didn’t work hard could be beaten and other such “stick”-type incentives leveraged. On the other hand, prisoners who worked hard, were willing to help keep their fellow prisoners in line, etc. etc. were given various rewards. In fact, in the extreme, a prisoner who managed to kill another prisoner attempting to escape could even be rewarded with a full pardon for that and whatever crime they’d previously committed to get locked up in the first place.

Most pertinent to the topic at hand, for those prisoners who were particularly well behaved and worked the hardest, one reward they could be given was the company of a prostitute on their Sunday off-day. To help facilitate this, every Sunday a literal truck load of women would be brought in to tend to the best behaved prisoners. Later, the policy was expanded to include girlfriends and wives for the men who preferred their company.

To illustrate the thinking of the prison officials in perhaps the most offensive way possible, we have this time-capsule of a quote from one contemporary prison guard from Mississippi- “You gotta understand that back in them days n***ers were pretty simple creatures. Give ‘em pork, some greens, some cornbread, and some poontang every now and then and they would work for you.”

Moving very swiftly on from there, the effectiveness of promised sex for a male prisoner, regardless of race, if they toed the line caught on and, as the century progressed, around 1/3 of the states in the U.S. eventually adopted the practice, as well as many other countries through the 20th century also instituting similar programs.

As for that effectiveness, former warden of Great Meadow Correctional Facility in New York State, Arthur Leonardo, explains, “We don’t have much to give to people in prison. If you don’t have anything to take away from someone, you don’t have anything to take away to urge them to do the right thing.”

Illustrating the effectiveness on the prisoner’s side, one Ray Coles, whose temper resulted in an assault that saw him given a nine year prison sentence, states of the incentive the conjugal visits give him to never step out of line, “Every action or choice I make is made with my wife in mind.”

As for what actually goes on during a conjugal visit, the Hollywood idea and reality, as ever, are somewhat different. While in film and TV shows, a conjugal visit is a time to get hot and sweaty with your partner, the reality is that, while sex may or may not be involved, much of the time is spent just doing normal things with not just a partner, but kids and other family members. In fact, in New York, it’s reported that around 40% of conjugal visits don’t include a spouse or the like, rather often just children and other loved ones. For this reason, these visits are usually officially called things like “Extended Family Visits” or, in New York, the “Family Reunion Program”.

As one California inmate summed up of his extended family visit with his partner, “I got to spend 2 1/2 days one-on-one with my partner, my best friend, my confidant, my life partner. It wasn’t about the sex.”

For further context here, in the United States for most prisoners, at best during normal visitation they might be allowed a brief 2 second hug with their partner and a peck on the cheek, if the latter is allowed at all. On top of that, everything you say or do is being watched, and the time together is relatively brief.

As you can imagine from this, for many prisoners, regardless of their crime, whatever prison sentence was doled out often comes with a generally unmentioned punishment of the finishing of a relationship with their partner. Combined with limited access to phones and the extreme expense of prison and jail phone calls, this also often sees a near complete disconnect from their kids, friends, etc. while in prison.

Thus, for prisoners, while sex may or may not be involved, the reality of the extended family visit is just that- depending on the exact rules for a given prison, 6-72 hours where you can spend time with your partner, kids, and sometimes other family members or friends in a somewhat normal setting, doing normal things.

As for frequency, while in movies it’s a regular thing, and little lead up time, in reality in the United States, this may be granted at best once per month all the way up to once per year, or not at all.

Towards the end of facilitating family bonding, many prisons that allow this provide a couple bedrooms to accommodate a couple and their kids, as well as things like board games, a TV, and potentially food, though costs of things like food are footed by the inmate or their loved ones. For reference, the wife of the aforementioned Ray Coles, Vanessa, states she pays around $100 per extended family visit for things like food, which is then provided by the prison.

As for regions outside the United States, places like Canada allow for extended family visits up to 72 hours in length once every couple months, including allowing anyone with a close familial bond to take part, even friends if the authorities deem the bond strong enough. As in the United States, food and other such items are paid for by the inmate or their family or friends.

Interestingly one of the most generous of the nations when it comes to family visits is Saudi Arabia, which allows a once a month visit; but if you have multiple wives, you get once per month per wife! On top of that, beyond allowing such frequent visits, the government actually pays for the travel of those coming to see you.

Back over in the United States, at its peak in the late 20th century, extended family visits were allowed in about 1/3 of states, but began dropping precipitously starting around the 1980s and 1990s to just four states today- California, Washington, New York, and Connecticut.

This was around the same time a number of such programs designed to keep people from being repeat jailbirds were given the axe across the nation, unsurprisingly directly corresponding to the prison population in the United States absolutely exploding, in the four decades since rising an astounding 500%! For reference, before the 1980s, the growth was relatively slow and steady, more or less tied to population growth. More on this in the Bonus Fact in a bit.

As for the impetus for cutting the extended family visit programs, this is generally tied to increased public sentiment starting around the 1980s and 1990s that prisoners are there to be punished, not to be coddled, and that the program costs too much. For example, in New Mexico, who relatively recently killed the extended family visit program, it was costing taxpayers about $120,000 per year.

Now, this might sound like a lot, and if you go read the news reports, this was certainly used as the driving political rhetoric to get the program nixed by the politicians involved. However, it’s noteworthy that New Mexico reports an average cost per inmate annually is a whopping $35,540, which is pretty close to the national average of about $31,000…. Meaning the entire extended family visit program was costing about what it costs to house just over 3 of their approximately 16,000 inmates per year.

Of course this is still costing taxpayers something… except when you consider, for example, a 1982 study done on New York’s prison populace which found that prisoners who were allowed extended family visits were almost 70% less likely than other prisoners to end up back in prison within three years. This makes it potentially the single most effective recidivism program known, even soundly stomping on the second king of recidivism programs- education, which we’ll talk a bit more about in the Bonus Facts.

As to why family visits seem so effective at reducing recidivism, as the aforementioned warden Arthur Leonardo, notes, those who are able to maintain family bonds while in prison, when they get out, have “someone who loves you and will help you, and in the case of children, people who depend on you…”

Going back to the reality of an extended family visit, it’s usually required that partners and the inmates be tested for STDs and come out clean before being allowed to have their little rendezvous. Further, the prisoners themselves are strip searched both before the extended family visit and after. Should they test positive for drug or alcohol use after, they are then banned from future visits indefinitely, and those who brought in the contraband may also be banned from taking part again.

On top of that, those that are visiting the prisoners must be cleared as well, though strip searches, at least in the United States, are not allowed on the visitors, so contraband may occasionally be smuggled in in certain orifices or the like. To try to get around this in, for instance California, inmates and their families are searched regularly during the extended family visits, usually at a rate of about once every four hours.

This brings us to what you can bring for an extended family visit. Well, not much- mostly just things like clean linens, certain toiletries, strictly regulated clothing, and the like. No cell phones, no electronic devices, and really not much of anything else. Even things like family pictures are pretty strictly regulated in number, type, and size. Going back to clothing, one Myesha Paul, wife of California inmate Marcello Paul who is in prison for robbery, states, “They don’t want you to have anything that’s form fitting… although we come with hips and all that, so it’s kinda hard to find what don’t fit around, you know? I just buy some men’s sweat pants and make it work.”

If you go look at the California regulations on this, they also have strict regulations when it comes to colors of clothing, for example no blue denim or forest green pants, no tan shirts, no camouflage, nothing strapless, no skirts or dresses or non-capri shorts- the list goes on and on.

Myesha also helpfully describes what a real extended family visit is like, stating, “We sat outside and played dominoes on Saturday. After that we went in and watched TV, watched movies.” And while she states her and her husband do have sex during the visit, as is almost universally noted by every other inmate and their partner we looked it, it’s more about the closeness and little things like getting to hold your partner’s hand or just hold them in general, as well as waking up next to them. She states, “It feels good… because I don’t get that at home. Ya know. At home I’m sleeping by myself, unless my grandbaby or one of my kids wanna sleep with me. But they’re grown. But they still do sleep with me sometimes. But other than that, you know, I’m waking myself up in the morning, or the alarm clock is waking me up, or my grandson comes and wakes me up. It’s good to have my husband waking me up. It’s the nicest thing about being married. Isn’t it? Waking up?”

She also states of her husband, “He watches me through the night… I know he does ’cause sometimes I wake up and he’s looking at me. And I do the same to him. Sometimes he’s sleeping and he wakes up and I’m watching him.”

Similarly summed up by the aforementioned Vanessa Coles, the value of extended family visits is about keeping her family together- “It keeps our bond going, keeps our marriage strong and keeps him on track.” As for the couple’s young kids, “The little one needs it because that’s all he knows. The older one needs it to remember what he knows.” And as for those arguing against allowing such visits, she states, “[The prisoners] are being punished. I get it. [But] destroying your marriage and family should not be a part of your sentence.”

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Bonus Facts:

Going back to what caused the massive spike in U.S. incarcerations starting in the 1980s that has more or less continued unabated since, one thing often pointed to is that this was around the time the war on drugs was ramped up, generally considering to account for about 25%-50% of the increase in inmate population. This still leaves the rest, which is the majority. And unless you just think U.S. citizens are far more likely to commit crimes than, for example, our European brethren, obviously there is something weird going on. As to what, a variety of factors are pointed to including the cutting of many programs designed to keep people from being repeat offenders, marked increase in sentence length, especially compared to the rest of the world for similar crimes, and perhaps the catch-all which has driven a lot of this to the extreme- the privatization of prisons that occurred at this time, making many prisons for-profit institutions.

In the decades since, these entities have heavily lobbied for things that seem pretty directly tied to doing everything possible to make prison sentences longer and keep people coming back for more- most pertinent to the topic at hand, cutting costs wherever possible for themselves, including any and all recidivism programs. After all, they get paid per inmate, so aren’t too concerned with what the total cost is to the state, other than the greater that cost, the more they make.

Naturally, the longer sentences and increased likelihood of repeat offenders, at a rate of about 45% within 3 years and 76% within five, has seen prison populations skyrocket in the United States since the 1980s. The net result of all of this being that, at present, the land of the free currently houses almost one quarter of all inmates imprisoned in the entire world! The cost of housing these inmates comes to about $50-$70 billion annually. This does not include the police and judicial costs that get the prisoners put there in the first place- all summing up to massive sums of money being spent and many more crimes being committed while proven recidivism programs that see massive reductions in repeat offenders going largely unused. And noteworthy here is that about 95% of prisoners do get out at some point.

And speaking of recidivism programs like extended family visits, a study done by the United States Department of Justice noted that prisoners given access to educational programs were, for vocational certificates 14.6% less likely to find their way back in prison within 3 years vs. the general prison populace. For those achieving a GED while in prison, they were 25% less likely to end up back in the slammer. And those who attained an Associates degree were the highest of all in their study at about 70% less likely, approximately the same benefit as those given access to extended family visits.

Averaging it all out, the net effect of the educational programs was about a 43% reduction in rate of returning to prison within 3 years. From this, crunching the numbers, the study showed that this meant for every $1 spent by the states towards educating prisoners, it saved $5 annually thanks to the reduction of prison population, let alone other cost savings in court and police expenditures and, of course, a reduction in crime rate. Given each year about 700,000 inmates are released in the United States, that amounts to a massive reduction in crime, while a rather large increase in a better educated and more skilled populace.

Finally, one more bonus fact- while violent criminals are almost always seen as the most dangerous and most likely to re-offend by the general public, the data does not back that up at all- not even close. According to the United States Department of Justice, the highest rate of re-offenders within 3 years after being released were those stealing motor vehicles at 78.8%! Next up are those in prison for selling stolen property at 77.4%. The list goes on and on, but essentially, those who steal are generally about 70%+ likely to re-offend within 3 years and are the highest at-risk re-offenders. In stark contrast, violent crime convicts are massively less likely to re-offend. For example, rapists and murderers are only 2.5% and 1.2% likely to re-offend respectively. Of course, the latter is much more news worthy and traumatic, leading to the skewed public perception.

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  • I can’t comment on everything in the bonus facts, but I think the low (1.2%) re-offending rate for murder can be put down to two things: (1) they receive very long sentences (if not actually executed!), and so leave prison in their old age, and (2) they were more likely to have committed a crime of passion, rather than be career criminals.
    For that matter, I read that, at Devil’s Island, the murderers looked down on the thieves. Murder might be a worse crime, but it was usually the only one they committed, while the thieves were habitual criminals. (That might be a reason behind the high re-offending rate for stealing cars and receiving stolen goods.)