There are only four states in the US still allowing conjugal visits in their prisons: California, Connecticut, New York, and Washington. New Mexico is the latest to cancel the practice; the decision to do so spawning from a news report that a convicted killer had fathered four children with multiple women while behind bars. Mississippi, the first state to offer conjugal visits, ditched the practice in 2014.
Public perception couldn't have helped the conjugal case, either: I mean, aren't these visits there just so prisoners can get laid?
Welllllll, not exactly. The dying practice was actually set up for a very different purpose.
Conjugal visits are there to help preserve families
By design, a conjugal visit is supposed to preserve a family unit, said Ryan (name changed), a 29-year-old corrections officer who used to be stationed at Green Haven Correctional Facility in Stormville, NY. There, he routinely moved inmates out from their cells and into their conjugal visitation trailers. Conjugal visits in New York are actually referred to as the FRP -- "Family Reunion Program" -- or, as Ryan's fellow corrections officers liked to joke, "the 'Felon Reproduction Program.'" Conjugal visits are also called extended family visits -- making the whole sex thing kind of off-base.
Through the FRP, inmates can be visited by a legal spouse, child or children, or other immediate family member or partner. "Technically, I'm not sure if you can have a girlfriend [visit]," Ryan said, "but people did. They’d lie and say it was their sister, their cousin…"
During a conjugal visit, people are permitted to engage in sexual activity -- but mostly, it's actually meant for family time: chatting in a non-prison setting, offering some semblance of a normal life in order to keep the integrity of a family unit together. These visits are intended to incentivize prisoners to comply with prison rules, be on best behavior, and have a higher chance of success upon re-entry to civilization.
In short, it's not just a shaggin' wagon. "A lot of moms would come," Ryan said, "a lot of parents, a lot of kids." In Connecticut, there actually has to be more than one visitor -- a spouse or partner is required to visit with the inmate's kid in tow. In Washington, if two inmates are related they can schedule a mutual visit with civilian family members. And actually, only 48% of conjugal visits in New York in 2014 were with spouses.
There's a long waiting list
"It’s not like they can just do it," Ryan said of prisoners seeking to host conjugal visits. "There's a waiting list, and they know well in advance [when they're scheduled]. You can't have any disciplinary history at all."
All states offering overnight visits require prisoners who get on the list to have impeccable prison behavior -- and to have already been incarcerated for at least 90 days. Inmates who are lifers or sex offenders aren't (usually) allowed conjugals.
The living spaces are totally hooked up
Conjugal visits are held in rooms, trailers, and cabins -- many of which are stocked with things like condoms, linens, and soap, and have up to two bedrooms so kids can visit as well. Living areas are further furnished with board games, cards, or dominoes.
"At Green Haven there were three trailers next to the main facilities inside the wall," Ryan said. "Each trailer was cut in half so they would have six visits at a time. You’d get put in on a Monday morning, stay the whole night, and come out a Tuesday afternoon."
The trailers at Greenhaven were like mini apartments for inmates and their loved ones. "There are kitchens in there, just like a regular trailer," Ryan said. "People can bring in food, there's a TV, PlayStation, a little playground area for the kids."
It's kind of like playing house for a couple of days -- Ryan remembers visits being two days, but at prisons elsewhere, conjugal visits can be from 24 hours to three days. They can also occur regularly; as often as once every month.
The trailers simulate a normal home life, albeit with G-rated DVDs and a prison just outside your front door.
Inmates get "stripped in and out"
That's strip-searched -- and often piss-tested for drugs and alcohol (a positive test in New York means an inmate will be banned from RFP for a full year). Visitors, on the other hand, only have to pass through a basic metal detector. "You can't strip civilians," Ryan said, but added that you'd find out quickly if drugs were being smuggled in when you strip-searched and drug-tested the inmate on his or her way out of the trailer.
Conjugal visits get interrupted periodically
"Basically, when we do our counts we'd call them and they'd come out of the room," Ryan said. "There's a tower right above them and the tower officer would verify [they were accounted for]. We'd also have to bring medicine to them," he said, explaining this was to ensure proper medications were being taken at the correct times.
And, yeah, people also have sex
"There was one time that an officer was doing rounds," Ryan said, "and heard people screaming and called an emergency response to go check it out. It ended up being two people fucking."
So, there's that -- people still definitely use the time to screw.
But do they work?
Short answer: sort of.
There are lots of benefits to maintaining a family unit even when one of its members is behind bars; and studies show that conjugal visits reduce incidences of sexual assault inside prisons. But there are also a lot of risks associated with the FRP, namely, potential for a rise in prison contraband, and the potential for escape attempts, transmission of HIV/AIDS (and other STDs), and, of course, pregnancy.
The conclusion most often arrived at, therefore, is that the negatives of the FRP outweigh the positives. And so it stands to reason that conjugal visits are on their way out -- at least in the way they function today. Without an overhauled rehabilitation system in general, it seems unrealistic that one small -- and fading -- program could have the power to ensure a better life for inmates, and their families, upon release.
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