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New York Prison System Allows Same-Sex Partners to Participate in Family Reunion Program

In late April 2011, the New York Department of Correctional Services (DOCS) formally adopted a regulation permitting same-sex married partners and those in civil unions to participate in the prison system’s family reunion program, also referred to as conjugal visiting. The regulation, Directive No. 4500, formalizes a policy change initiated three years ago by then-Governor David Paterson, who ordered all New York state agencies to recognize civil unions and same-sex marriages legally performed in other states.

In an unusual twist, New York’s prison system found itself ahead of the social curve, as same-sex marriages were not approved by the state legislature until June 2011. DOCS spokesperson Peter Cutler said he was aware of one prisoner in a same-sex relationship who had requested a conjugal visit, and the request was pending. Previously the family reunion program had been available only to those in traditional marriages. About a third of New York’s prisons allow conjugal visits.

With the adoption of the new regulation, New York joins California as one of only a few state prison systems to allow conjugal visits for same-sex partners. Since late 2007, California’s prison regulations have permitted “family visits” (i.e., extended overnight visits typically lasting close to 48 hours) for registered domestic partners, including same-sex couples, as well as for more traditional “immediate family members.” [See: PLN, June 2008, p.15].

Ross Levi, executive director of the Empire State Pride Agenda, applauded the DOCS policy change to allow same-sex conjugal visits, as did Molly McKay of Marriage Equality USA. “This is a recognition of same-sex couples as families,” McKay stated.
Further, DOCS held its first same-sex marriage at the Auburn Correctional Facility in December 2011, when a male prisoner married a male former prisoner in a civil ceremony. [See: PLN, April 2012, p.50].


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