Family & Corrections Network

Conjugal Visitation: A U.S. Perspective

A research paper presented to Tyler Fletcher, Associate Professor, in partial fulfillment of the requirements for Criminal Justice 650, University of Southern Mississippi, March 1977.

by Kevin Wright

USM Box 6928 Hattiesburg, MS 39406


Conjugal visitation is not provided to most married or unmarried inmates in U.S. prisons. First implemented in Mississippi prisons, conjugal visitation programs have been successful in other states such as California and New York. Conjugal visits give inmates the opportunity to keep the family unit together. By doing so, inmates are more likely to have lower recidivism rates and are easier to manage while serving their sentences. There is a need for new research on conjugal visitation programs. Past research has shown that these programs are a valuable rehabilitative tool for the criminal justice system. If these programs can be used to reintegrate offenders back into the community, then they should be used on a larger scale.

There are few jurisdictions in the United States which afford inmates the privilege of conjugal visitation in their correctional facilities. The lack of conjugal visitation programs in penal institutions; subsequently, has resulted in a scarcity of scholarly literature on the topic. However, some of the more notable studies of conjugal visitation programs in the United States will be discussed here. There is great public demand for the abolition of inmate privileges in the United States. The thought of inmates enjoying themselves while serving a punitive prison sentence is largely unacceptable to innocent, American citizens who fall prey to criminal acts. This “get tough”philosophy on punishing criminals is not overly interested in rehabilitating inmates nor is it interested in alternative programs which may reduce recidivism rates. The focus is on the incarceration of criminals not the reformation of them. Obviously, this type of thinking does not welcome the implementation of conjugal visitation programs in American correctional facilities.

The reduction of privileges such as conjugal visitations leave correction administrators little to work with in their dealings with inmates. These administrators need some type of bargaining tool to induce inmates to behave accordingly. Having no incentives to offer the inmates may directly inhibit the rehabilitative process. The state of Mississippi allows conjugal visitations; however, recently the state House Penitentiary Committee chairman Bennett Malone, who describes the state prisons as country clubs, has called for the abrogation of the program. In recent years, lawmakers of the state have stripped inmates of other privileges such as: lifting weights, radios, televisions, magazines, etc. This type of legislation makes Mississippi Corrections Commissioner Steve Puckett’s job of correcting state offenders much more difficult and may place his correctional staff in further danger (1).

Mississippi legislatures are not alone in their attempt to leave inmates with no privileges. The trend is mirrored throughout much of the country. Legislatures are continuously creating laws which are supposed to reduce crime and to make the public feel safe. However, creating statutes that abolish inmate privileges leave correctional officials with volatile prisons that serves as incubators for violence and a birthplace of subversive behavior. Not all inmates are serving life sentences. The majority of prisoners are released. The “lock’em up and throw away the key” attitude is bad policy. If offenders are becoming worse criminals while serving their sentences and then being released back into society, then correctional institutions are not serving their purpose. Policymakers must re-evaluate the policies they create with the end result in mind.

It would be a futile argument to make by saying that conjugal visitation would be a panacea for rehabilitating inmates, but if the programs offer some benefits they should receive a close look from both policymakers and correctional administrations. Where conjugal visitation programs do exist, they are nearly without exception reserved for married inmates. While married inmates do not make up the majority of most prison populations, their numbers are significant. (2) Obviously, the incarceration of a family member will have some degree of stress on the family unit. If it is possible to keep these families together throughout the sentence, then the chances of rehabilitation will be greater. (3)

Before conjugal visitation programs can be evaluated fairly, there must be some understanding of the true definition of conjugal. This term is most often a synonym for sex. This is not altogether true. Married couples in society are understood to have rights inherent to marriage and these are called conjugal rights. Sex is but one component of these rights. Conjugal rights are those which enable married persons to enjoy associating with one another, sympathizing together, confiding together, creating domestic happiness, sharing a home together, having certain property rights which are endemic to marriage, preparing meals together, as well as having intimacies with one another. (4) Conjugal visitation programs can and should be more than inmates simply having sex with their spouses. When applicable, it should involve those other variables which make a marriage so dynamic. Maintaining family ties is a very laudable goal that correctional administrators must at the very least try to achieve. Strong family ties are so important in the rehabilitative process and are shown to inhibit recidivism. (5) The possibility of salvaging the family unit while a spouse is incarcerated will take correctional programs that encourage and promote normal family behavior. The family, correction officials and their staff play a major role in successfully bringing an inmate back into society.

Conjugal visitations programs in American penal institutions were first created at the Mississippi State Penitentiary in Parchman in 1918. (6) However, conjugal visits may have been at Parchman since its conception in 1900 when the first warden, James Parchman, also a plantation manager, used the physical aspect of conjugal visits to compel black inmates to work harder in the cotton fields during the week. Conjugal visits at Parchman started out as strictly a management tool and had little to do with fortifying family ties. (7) Originally, more often than not, prison officials allowed Negro prostitutes to come to the prison on Sundays to give the black inmates sexual favors. (8) Furthermore, the sexual visits were exclusively for the black male inmates and being married was not a requirement. Prison officials kept the prostitutes in the administrative building during the day and allowed them to roam freely from camp to camp during the night. It was thought that the white inmates could control their libidos more than the black inmates. The blacks were believed to be naturally promiscuous and were in greater need of sexual outlets than their white counterparts. This visitation policy was nothing more than a manipulative, managerial tool. (9)

The construction of the first building specifically designed for conjugal visitation was around the 1940s. Most inmates and their wives or significant others were forced to have relations in the prisoners’ sleeping quarters where they would hang blankets to gain a small bit of privacy, until the inmates began building their own conjugal visiting houses. (10) The inmates made these houses out of spare lumber and any materials they could get their hands on. These make shift houses or lean-tos , for some unknown reason, were painted red thus explaining why they were called “red houses” for so long. Today, those facilities which house inmates who are eligible for conjugal visits have the visitation rooms built in. Conjugal visitation rooms are included in the architectural design. Don Cabana, former warden of the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman, states that if the state was ever going to abandon conjugal visitations, it lost the chance by building the conjugal facilities.