Pros and Cons of Conjugal Visits

Conjugal visits for prisoners are always subject to controversy. People with a more punitive view believe that it’s an excessive luxury. Others who think it’s right prisoners are entitled to.

The best way to look at it is to think about how it affects the prisoners. Are there clear-cut benefits to conjugal visits for prisoners? It sure seems so. Most people love their families. Family time could be a motivator for many to reform.

On the other hand, the positive effects could be minimal. Without benefits, is the cost worth it?

Let’s dive into the history and advantages and disadvantages of conjugal visits.

Pros and cons of conjugal visits

What is a conjugal visit?

A conjugal visit is typically a prison visitation between spouses for sexual purposes. 

Today, they’re ingrained in popular culture. Prison-related jokes often involve them. For example, the sitcom Arrested Development had an episode that ended with a son accidentally viewing his mother and father having sex on a conjugal visit. HBO’s Oz illustrates how conjugal visits lead to better behavior. It also shows the violence that happens when they’re are taken away. 

They’ve even become a significant part of our sexuality. Conjugal visits are a pretty standard setting for pornography. 

Today, professionals prefer the term “family visits.” Believing visits help reform prisoners, some prisons have expanded them to include private time with grandparents, children, in-laws, and spouses. The hope is that keeping them connected with the outside world makes prisoners think about life beyond prison and make better decisions.

Their Dark Origins

Like most things prison-related, I’m guessing you wouldn’t be surprised that they have a dark origin. They started with Parchman Penitentiary in 1904. This prison was a recreated southern plantation straight out of the 19th century. This included a black convict slave labor force.  

Conjugal visits were an incentive for good behavior. Every Sunday, guards drove prostitutes in for the laborers. Over time, the practice spread and shifted away from prostitutes towards girlfriends and wives. The practice spread, and by 1995, seventeen states had some form of conjugal visits. 

Sadly, public opinion has put an end to conjugal visits for the most part. Only California, New York, and Washington still have them. America’s punitive views have led to conjugal visits ending in the other fourteen states. 

Pros of Conjugal Visits

Now that we know more, let’s take a look at the pros and cons of conjugal visits.

Conjugal visits encourage good behavior

Whether an inmate gets a conjugal visit depends on how they behave. They’ve dangled carrots keeping inmates on track. If they misbehave, they won’t see their family. It’s as simple as that.  

Family is an excellent motivator. Prisoners have something to look forward to. After visits, they’re more grounded mentally. Their families also provide moral support and keep them on the right track. Why put all of that at risk over a fight.

Strengthens familial bonds

One of the most significant difficulties prisoners face is their families falling apart. Without a safety net when they get out, they’ll likely be back in prison. 

Conjugal visits allow prisoners to spend time with their spouse, hopefully preventing a future divorce. Spending time together is especially critical for families with children. 

The benefits don’t only translate to the prisoner. Studies show that conjugal visits improve the lives of those who visit. 

Makes prison life safer 

Most long-term prisoners are looking for ways to qualify for privileges like conjugal visits. To qualify, they must avoid ‘terrorizing’ other prisoners, getting into fights, instigating violence, selling drugs, etc. 

In a paper published in 2014, Flordia International University discovered that conjugal visits decreased sexual abuse in prison alone by seventy-five percent.  

Less sexual abuse has the additional benefit of reducing the transmission of STDs. That means fewer prisoners contracting HIV and other diseases, saving prisons on treatment costs.  

Fewer repeat offenders

Since prisoners are allowed to maintain family ties, they stand a better chance of living a healthy family life once their prison term comes to an end. 

A study of New York prisoners in the 1980s revealed that prisoners reoffended 67% less often if they had conjugal visits. Visits with family maintain ties and give them something to live for when they leave.  

Conjugal visits offer much needed privacy

One of the worst parts of being in prison is the lack of privacy. You sleep and use the bathroom in front of your cellmate. You shower in front of the guards. Cameras and guards closely monitor your visitations.  

Having a few moments alone with your spouse can make a big difference in prisoners’ mental health. 

You’re not only punishing prisoners

Prisoners aren’t the only ones hurt by removing conjugal visits. By punishing them, you’re punishing their spouse who did nothing. You’re hurting their children. They just want to spend time with their parents.

You’re also taking away reproductive rights. It might not be the best idea to have a child with someone in prison, but they should at least have the freedom to choose.

Conjugal visits can also include other family members

As we mentioned, visits are not limited to just couples. You can spend time with your children in less crowded areas. Grandparents, siblings, and cousins can all join. If you come from a large family, this could make a big difference.  

Cons of Conjugal Visits

There’s some safety concerns

Despite conjugal visits being a ‘family affair,’ they can be unpredictable since there is virtually no supervision in the visitation area – so anything could potentially happen. 

For example, in 2010, a German inmate killed his 46-year-old girlfriend during a six-hour unsupervised visit.

Still, cases like this are rare and shouldn’t drive public policy. 

They’re a source of contraband

People coming in from the outside to visit their loved ones may carry illegal items with them, including drugs or even concealable weapons. Sheriffs and prison officials report visits constitute a significant source of illicit goods.

We should take these claims with a grain of salt. Some studies show that the majority of contraband arrests come from staff. Security makes it difficult for prisoners to smuggle anything. You may not be able to check the visitor, but prisoners are strip-searched and drug tested. 

Visits are not entirely ‘private.’

Even though conjugal visits are supposed to be mostly private, this doesn’t mean that normal day-to-day prison processes will not occur. For example, prisoners must respond to daily ‘call-outs’ at their scheduled time. 

Guards checking in can quickly ruin the mood if things are getting intimate.   

Possible escape attempts

Officials cite escape attempts as the reason to end conjugal visits. Some prisoners take the opportunity to make escape plans. For this very reason, some states have discontinued the practice. 

We’ve tried to look into this claim but haven’t found a lot of evidence. It makes sense that this would happen, but 

Risk of STDs

Though visits reduce sexual violence, STDs are always a problem with sex involved. Sex is still risky, and prisoners might bring STDs back with them into the prison.

More major single parents

Even after being provided contraceptives, many female prisoners still become pregnant. If the father is in prison for life, that’s another single mother. She won’t even benefit from child support, as the father wouldn’t be able to pay.

The programs are expensive

We think that many of the problems with conjugal visits are mostly deflections. States shut these programs down because they cost money. Guards need to monitor prisoners. Space and resources are spent building the private areas. 

With many prisons operating on shoestring budgets, I get the desire to end these programs. 

The Verdict: Do conjugal visits work?

Based on these pros and cons of conjugal visits, we believe they work. Reduced repeat offenders, fewer rapes, and more families staying together are a good thing. Most of the reasons not to implement these programs are punitive or anecdotes not to spend money. As a society, we need to think about how we treat our prisoners. There is a better way if we can fork up the dough and open our hearts.  

Alan Behrens

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