Research Finds that Conjugal Visits Correlate with Fewer Sexual Assaults
A study conducted by researchers at Florida International University (FIU) found that state prison systems that permit conjugal visits report fewer rapes and sexual assaults than those where such visits are prohibited – a finding that the researchers said tends to dispute the theory that sex offenses are crimes of power rather than a means of sexual gratification.
“Our findings propel the idea that sexual violence can be attenuated given appropriate policy initiatives,” stated the authors of the 2012 study, Stewart D’Alessio, Jamie Flexon and Lisa Stolzenberg. In spite of the report’s findings, two states recently announced that they are discontinuing their conjugal visitation programs.
The FIU study was conducted over a three-year period, from 2004-2006, in the five states that provided conjugal visits at that time: California, Mississippi, New Mexico, New York and Washington. [See: PLN, May 2013, p.1].
“Inmate-on-inmate sexual offending is much less pronounced in states that allow conjugal visitation,” the study concluded.
While sexual violence occurred in state prison systems that prohibit conjugal visits at an average rate of 226 incidents per 100,000 prisoners, it occurred almost four times less frequently in the five states that permitted such visits – 57 per 100,000 prisoners.
The FIU researchers said the effect of conjugal visitation in reducing sexual assaults among prisoners should encourage more states to consider allowing such visits, which the study noted have other positive effects. For example, conjugal visits, also known as family visits, help “improve 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.”
“Additionally,” the study continued, “because conjugal visitation is reported to reduce homosexual activity and because AIDS is often spread by homosexual activity, conjugal visitation may help to attenuate the spread of AIDS in prison.”
The researchers acknowledged their study had certain limitations, particularly that rape and sexual assault among prisoners are underreported and, as a result, there could have been more incidents of sexual victimization in states that allow conjugal visits than reflected in their data.
Nevertheless, the authors of the study maintained that their findings have “other policy implications.” Treatment programs, they argued, “should be geared to view sexual offending as a sex crime instead of solely as a crime of power.” Such programs, the study said, could reduce recidivism among sex offenders.
On February 1, 2014, Mississippi joined the 45 states that prohibit conjugal visits, halting the century-old practice due to what officials called budget issues and concerns about babies being born as a possible result of the visits.
“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 DOC Commissioner Christopher B. Epps said in a press release. “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.”
Of the more than 22,000 prisoners in Mississippi state prisons, just 155 were allowed conjugal visits in fiscal year 2013. Under the program, the visits were available only to prisoners classified as minimum- or medium-security who did not have a written rules violation within the previous six months.
“While both the extended family visitation and conjugal visit program involve a small percentage of inmates, the cost coupled with big-ticket items adds up,” Epps stated. “The benefits of the programs don’t outweigh the cost in the overall budget.”
Family members who participated in the visits strongly disagreed.
Tina Perry, 49, who had been visiting her incarcerated husband every few months for the past eight years, said prisoners’ spouses should not be forced to suffer any more than they already do, and the state should not deprive them of something that is an infrequent but important part of their relationship.
Some spouses argued it’s not about the sex but rather about privacy. “The little 60 minutes isn’t a lot of time, but I appreciate it because we can just talk and hold each other and be with each other,” said Ebony Fisher, 25, who would drive nearly three hours to see her husband, who is serving a 60-year sentence. But Fisher also admitted that the end of conjugal visits means no more children for the couple.
“Let me have that option,” she said. “I feel like they are taking away my choice.”
“You never just get husband and wife time” during regular prison visits, noted Amy Parsons, who drove eight hours for a one-hour conjugal visit with her husband, who is not due to be released until 2022.
“It’s not romantic, but it doesn’t matter,” she said. “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.”
Even prison officials conceded that the visits were a deterrent to unruly behavior among prisoners. “Conjugal visits have been a privilege,” noted Mississippi DOC spokeswoman Tara Booth. “So in that sense, it has, as other internal opportunities, helped to maintain order.”
On April 16, 2014, New Mexico prison officials announced the end of conjugal visits effective the following month, citing concerns about contraband and sexually transmitted diseases. They estimated annual savings of around $120,000 by discontinuing the visitation program, which had been in effect for 30 years.
“Some of these policies are old and tired,” said Corrections Secretary Gregg Marcantel. “They aren’t producing the outcomes we need to help our inmates and make our communities safer.”
Conjugal visitation was implemented in New Mexico following an infamous 1980 riot at the state penitentiary near Santa Fe that resulted in 33 deaths; the visits were intended to help reduce tension in the prison population.
“After two years of research we found the overnight stays had no impact on decreasing the rate of inmates returning to jail,” said New Mexico DOC spokeswoman Alex Tomlin, who noted that only around 150 prisoners qualified for conjugal visits. The visits will be replaced with family programs that include classes on parenting and financial planning.
When discontinuing their conjugal visitation programs, neither Mississippi nor New Mexico officials addressed the findings of the FIU study relative to the effect conjugal visits have on reducing sexual assaults among prisoners.
Sources: “The Effect of Conjugal Visitation on Sexual Violence in Prison,” American Journal of Criminal Justice (February 2012); www.usatoday.com; www.mdoc.state.ms.us; Reuters
As a digital subscriber to Prison Legal News, you can access full text and downloads for this and other premium content.
Already a subscriber? Login