Justice

Reasons Prisoners Should Be Having More Sex

Once a common facet of prison life, conjugal visits—intimate time for prisoners to spend with significant others or family—are now a luxury afforded to few inmates serving time in the U.S.

Just four states—California, Connecticut, New York, and Washington—provide conjugal benefits. But research indicates that visits are a potential boon to prison environments and an incentive for inmates to be on good behavior in order to be eligible. Moreover, states could potentially save money in long-term incarceration costs.

Yet their existence is dwindling. According to the Marshall Project, 17 states allowed visits 20 years ago, but that number has shrunk over the years as lawmakers and voters have shied away from funding programs they say are expensive, too good for offenders, and damaging to health and wellness.

Research supporting conjugal visits indicates that allowing inmates to spend time with partners and loved ones strengthens family bonds, reduces violence, and creates safer prison environments for inmates. 

One 2012 study found that in states where conjugal visits are not allowed, prisons had more than four times as many incidents of sexual violence between inmates as facilities in states where they were allowed. That study also pointed to the familial benefits conjugal visits could bring, "improv[ing] the functioning of a marriage by maintaining an inmate's role as husband or wife, improve the inmate's behavior while incarcerated, counter the effects of prisonization, and improve post-release success by enhancing the inmate's ability to maintain ties with his or her family." Researchers also noted the possibility of reducing sexually transmitted diseases by reducing inmate-to-inmate contact.

Another 2012 national study by Yale law students found that conjugal visits could not only decrease sexual violence between prisoners, but also act as "a powerful incentive" for good behavior for inmates who want to spend time with loved ones. "Family members and children who visit and are thus able to build and sustain more meaningful relationships with their incarcerated parent or family member may benefit tremendously," researchers noted. "Indeed, more generally, the positive impact of visitation on visiting family and on inmates has been well documented," they wrote.

Conjugal visits could reduce the rate of reoffending prisoners, saving states money in the long-term, according to some experts. Conjugal visits are "really a program to prevent recidivism," Jorja Leap, a social welfare professor at UCLA's Luskin School of Public Affairs told Time in 2014. "The idea being that if family ties continue to exist, there's more of a structure available to them once they have served their term in prison. As preposterous as it sounds, it's almost viewed as a crime prevention program."  

Still more states have moved to curtail the practice in recent years.

Last year, Mississippi, the first state in the U.S. to allow conjugal visits in the early 1900s, ended its program because of financial, moral, and safety concerns.

"There are costs associated with the staff's time, having to escort inmates to and from the visitation facility, supervising personal hygiene and keeping up with the infrastructure of the facility," Mississippi Department of Corrections Commissioner Christopher Epps said in a statement at the time. "Then, even though we provide contraception, we have no idea how many women are getting pregnant only for the child to be raised by one parent."

"The benefits of the programs don't outweigh the cost in overall budget," Epps said.

Months after Mississippi's decision, officials in New Mexico announced their program would end conjugal visits, saving the state an estimated $120,000 per year. Corrections officials there cited research showing no decrease to the state's recidivism rates, Reuters reported.

No federal prisons allow conjugal visits.

"Orange is the New Black" screenshot Morello wedding

The Marshall Project notes that conjugal visits are importantly not just about sex, but are often between families. In fact, only a small percentage of conjugal visits in Washington, for example, are between just two spouses. The details of a visit differ depending on the state, but can be 24 to 72 hours of unsupervised time with family, with board games, and fully functional kitchens.

For families of inmates, conjugal visits provide what the New York Times called a lifeline to spouses. "It's not romantic, but it doesn't matter," one Arkansas woman who traveled eight hours to visit her husband told The Times last year. "I just want people to realize it's about the alone time with your husband. I understand they are in there for a reason. Obviously they did something wrong. But they are human, too. So are we."