The state of Mississippi says it will end the policy of providing conjugal visits for its prison population at the end of this month. According to an order issued by Corrections Commissioner Christopher Epps, conjugal visits will be discontinued by Feb. 1, citing, among other factors, the related financial costs and the danger of inmates fathering children they can't raise. “There are costs associated with the staff’s time, having to escort inmates to and from the location, supervising personal hygiene and the upkeep of the building,” Epps said in a statement. “In addition to the budgetary reasons, even though we provide contraception, women get pregnant and have to raise the child as a single parent.”
Some Mississippi lawmakers say the policy should have been eliminated long ago. "It just amazes me that Mississippi, as conservative as we are, that we even have conjugal visitation," Republican state Rep. Richard Bennett told The Clarion-Ledger newspaper of Jackson. “It's good that the commissioner says he's going to end the practice, but I still want it outlawed. I want a law to make sure it can't start up again."
Even under the existing conjugal visitation policy, very few inmates were even accorded the privilege thanks to tight restrictions – inmates could have sex only if they had behaved themselves for at least six months, were housed in minimum security cells, and only with their wives (thus unmarried and/or homosexual prisoners were barred.) Also, inmates deemed at risk of spreading HIV or other sexually transmitted diseases were ineligible. (Only New York and California allow conjugal visits for same-sex couples). Consequently, only 155 inmates in Mississippi, less than 1 percent of the entire 22,600 prison population, were even deemed “eligible.” In addition, last year Mississippi ended its family visitation program for prisoners.
Dr. Susan V. Koski, assistant professor of criminology and criminal justice at Central Connecticut State University, noted that conjugal visits are rare within the U.S. correctional system because they are costly and not generally supported by community mores. “Where permitted, conjugal visits are costly to the system because they require special facilities in already overburdened and underbudgeted physical [sites],” she said in an interview. “Special security and staffing is needed and it represents a security risk. The highest threat to a prison's security is smuggling, and conjugal visits represent an additional opportunity to introduce contraband.” She added that drug interdiction programs are also expensive and have to be enhanced when prisons allow conjugal visits. “Conjugal visits also allow prison gangs an opportunity to freely coordinate and manage their business with an intermediary and avoid normal intelligence detection/intervention,” Koski said. “It also adds to inmate health care costs as this population tends to have high rates of communicable diseases. It is a pathway for adding diseases to the general prison population.”
But in an op-ed in the Times-Picayune of New Orleans, columnist Jarvis DeBerry condemned the decision, lamenting that denying such rights to its prisoners will only make Mississippi's “notorious” jails even worse and more dangerous. DeBerry noted that even repressive Muslim states like Iran and Saudi Arabia (which execute prisoners at alarming rates), allow conjugal visits for their inmates.
But in fact, Mississippi is actually only one of six U.S. states – the others being California, Connecticut, New Mexico, New York and Washington (down from 17 states in 1993) – that even permit conjugal visit for inmates, while federal prisons do not allow such privileges at all. Mississippi, long maligned as one of the most backward and repressive states in the Union, was actually one of the first states – perhaps the very first – to offer conjugal visits to its prisoners as a “reward” for good behavior back around 1900 (sometimes even providing jailbirds with prostitutes). According to an attorney named Patrick Rodgers, conjugal visits for prisoners commenced in the early 1900s when a warden at Mississippi State Penitentiary (better known as Parchman Farm, and the oldest prison in Mississippi), offered the service in order to inspire the largely black inmate population to work harder on the prison’s farm.
DeBerry himself wrote that the policy back then applied only to black prisoners “based on the belief that black folks were a more passionate people who needed sexual release in ways their white counterparts didn't.” But DeBerry (who is an African-American himself) defended the policy as a way of keeping inmates' behavior in check and maintaining their spirits. “A prisoner anticipating a sexual romp with his wife doesn't want to risk that privilege being taken away,” he wrote. “So he's more likely to follow the rules. In fact, only those inmates with no rules violations in six months could participate.”
DeBerry further noted that Epps himself conceded to The Clarion Ledger that conjugal visitations probably reduced sexual assaults within the prison system and helped inmates keep their marriages and families intact. Consequently, DeBerry postulates the cancellation of conjugal visit has more to do with conservative Republican politics rather than money. (Mississippi's governor Phil Bryant is a Republican, while the legislature is under GOP control). “Is it that the program's become a political target for Mississippi politicians who find the policy uncomfortably liberal?” he asked. “Some people favor making prisons as hellish as humanly possible and think depriving prisoners of every comfort is the whole point of prisons. These are not the folks we want guiding policy. People who run prisons often say it's easier to keep order if prisoners are given something that can be taken away if they break the rules.”
Still, Epps again cited the costs of the programs. “While both the extended family visitation and conjugal visit program involve a small percentage of inmates, the cost coupled with big-ticket items adds up,” Epps said. “The benefits of the programs don’t outweigh the cost in the overall budget.” Interestingly, conjugal visits were never formally regulated under Mississippi laws until the 1980s.
The Clarion-Ledger reports that at least two regional prisoners' rights groups – Operation Help Civil Rights of Memphis and the Mississippi Advocates for Prisoners -- have demanded that Epps rescind the order to eliminate conjugal visits. Kelly Muscolino, director of Mississippi Advocates for Prisoners, defended the need for conjugal visits. “They allow inmates to build a bond with their loved ones, provide them with an outlet for emotion, and build confidence in knowing that they are not forgotten and that they are loved,” Muscolino said. “They strengthen the family as a whole and promote support and security within the relationship. This is apparent in our day-to-day lives.” Muscolino, herself the wife of an inmate, added: “We feel as though Mr. Epps’ decision did not take the family unit into account.”
Wendol Lee, president of Operation Help Civil Rights, said the bigger problem in Mississippi prisons has to do with male guards sexually assaulting (or having consensual sex with) female inmates, making them pregnant. Epps himself has addressed this phenomenon. “It is against the law for correctional officers to have sex with inmates,” he stated. “Therefore, while incarcerated, any female who got pregnant by a male correctional officer should have reported that crime. Also, anyone who knows for a fact that this occurred should do likewise.” But Epps added that is “unaware” of any female prisoner being impregnated by a male correctional officer “while she was under our care, custody and control.”
Cooper "Pete" Misskelley, the former warden of the Carroll-Montgomery Regional Correctional Facility in Vaiden, Miss, told The Grio.com, that while conjugal visits are a good idea for uplifting prisoners' morale, he somewhat understands the decision to cancel it. “I believe there would be some tension,” Misskelley said. “But I don’t think it will make or break the inmate. But it was a tool to help him to try to keep his family in place and be close to his wife. But I’m sure most of the people in the free world wouldn’t go along with the idea of conjugal visits. They just want to lock up all the prisoners and throw away the key. But that’s not the idea. The idea is to try to change them and keep them from committing further crimes and making their lives more poisonous. I really wanted to help these fellas and help them be the kind of folks the Lord would be proud of.”
Muscolino herself partly conceded that much of the public has no sympathy for the rights of convicts, but she asserts that by canceling conjugal visits, the inmates' innocent families will be unfairly hurt. “I don’t think it is fair to take away someone’s right to have a child,” she said. “I understand that a lot of people have the opinion that they are prisoners and they don’t deserve it, but we are not prisoners. We feel like it is beneficial to us. It keeps us going. It gives us the strength to stay in a relationship like this.”
But the state of Mississippi is facing bigger troubles than the love life of its prisoners – the inmate population is simply rising too fast, leading to soaring costs (the prison bill for this year is estimated at $338 million). Since tough sentencing rules were passed in the 1990s, Mississippi's prison population has surged – indeed, the state has the second-highest incarceration rate in the country.
According to The Pew Charitable Trusts, in defiance of prison populations dropping nationally, Mississippi keeps locking people up with ferocity. Mississippi’s inmate population has jumped by 17 percent in the last decade (as the state's overall population edged up only 4 percent) and by more than 300 percent over the past 30 years (29 percent growth for whole state). “Prison growth in Mississippi was more than four times and almost 11 times faster than resident population growth, for the respective periods,” Pew stated. “The state now houses more than 22,600 prisoners and has the second-highest imprisonment rate in the country, trailing [only] Louisiana.”
Mississippi's prison population is projected to grow by almost 2,000 inmates over the next decade at an additional cost of $266 million to state taxpayers. As a result, a group of judges, prosecutors and state officials have formed a task force – including Epps and Bryant – to determine ways to reduce the number of inmates and will present their proposals to the Legislature this year. The Associated Press reported that, among other things, the task force will recommend reducing prison terms for low-level drug possession convictions, raising the lower limit of felony theft to $1,000 from $500, reducing mandatory minimum sentences for certain crimes and permitting judges leeway to sentence more people to probation or house arrest.
As for the rest of the world, the American distaste for allowing prisoners to engage in sexual relations with their loved ones in largely shared in the Western world (ironically, the same states which are described as advanced modern democracies). Indeed, not only are conjugal visits prohibited in most states in the U.S., but they are outright banned in the United Kingdom. Koski explained that since prisons are by design a mostly punitive institution, the general public frowns on any semblance of rewards or taxpayer-supported comforts for inmates. “The notion of being able to have sex on the public dime, while you are supposed to be punished, is a politician's/legislator's nightmare,” she explained. “There are also the unintended consequences of families moving to the towns surrounding prisons where enhanced visitations are possible… It also results in incentives for increased pregnancies and single parenting. Inmates are usually very eager to impregnate their partners as a tool to maintain/solidify strained relationships. Lastly, it promotes a culture, which normalizes that 'daddy is in prison.'"
The Economist reported that Turkey, Costa Rica, Israel and Mexico allow conjugal visits – in some cases, even for unmarried and/or homosexual inmates. (In fact, Yigal Amir, the man who assassinated former Israel Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, fathered a child while in prison, during a conjugal respite).
But what about Saudi Arabia and Iran, two of the most repressive states in the world? Dilshod Achilov, assistant professor of political science at East Tennessee State University, explains that it is really not so surprising that these Islamic nations allow conjugal visits. Saudi Arabia and Iran are highly conservative, and thus, family-oriented societies, he noted. “Family bonds, particularly marriage -- as a key social institution - is deeply engrained into the Middle East social fabric,” Achilov stated. “In this setting, the preservation of the family is deemed important after inmates complete their jail sentences.” Islam plays a large role in this policy, given that Islamic law emphasizes the maintenance of family bonds.
With respect to Iran, Michel Sidibe, the executive director of UNAIDS, has praised Tehran for how it has addressed the spread of HIV in its prison systems (the rate of infection is about eight times higher in Iranian jails compared to the general population). “What I saw in Qezel Hessar Prison [the largest detention center, located outside Kataj City, Iran] is an evidence-based approach marked by tolerance, pragmatism and compassion,” said Sidibé after touring the largest detention center in the region. “I am impressed with the comprehensive package of HIV prevention, treatment, care and psychosocial support that the prison provides.”
Like almost all other prisons in Iran, Qezel Hessar allows conjugal visits for its married prisoners, even providing condoms and private rooms.