On Friday, family members of those incarcerated in Mississippi prisoners will gather in the state capital in support of their imprisoned loved ones. For the significant others, imprisonment can be especially trying, and it's about to become even more so.
The state that pioneered the concept of family visits is now taking them away. As of Feb. 1, prison commissioner Christopher B. Epps (pictured above) is no longer allowing Mississippi State Penitentiary inmates to have private time with their loved ones, citing budgetary reasons and "the number of babies being born possibly as a result." From a historical and humanitarian standpoint, his argument fails miserably.
The practice of family visits, or "conjugal visits" as they used to be know, was initially created to increase worker productivity. When conjugal visits were first implemented in 1918 by James Parchmann, the warden at Mississippi State Penitentiary (also known as Parchmann Farm), the idea was that they could be used as an incentive to make inmates more efficient at the various labor tasks assigned to them by the state.
Similarly, although Epps has expressed concern about unwanted children resulting from conjugal visits, the practice has lingered in states like California, Connecticut, New Mexico, New York and Washington (as well as, until next month, Mississippi) because it was believed that preserving family bonds would diminish the likelihood of recidivism. There is a reason why "Extended Family Visit" was chosen in lieu of the more conventional "conjugal visit" moniker.
Of course, if you look at Epps' argument through a more political lense, the change looks more like an inevitable, unfortunately.
Back in 1993, 17 states offered conjugal programs to their inmates, and the number has been reduced largely because of concerns about cost. As Epps explained, "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 the infrastructure of the facility." (Last year, 155 of Mississippi's 22,000 inmates were granted conjugal visits.)
As austerity continues to dominate America's fiscal policy in many red states, enormous political pressure exists against spending this kind of money on a program that seems to primarily benefit prisoners. In the words of a Mississippi state representative who has long pushed for banning conjugal visits, "People are in prison for a reason. It's like taking a child, putting him in time out and then saying, 'I don't want you to be sad while you're in here so tell me your favorite thing — maybe an Xbox — and I'll get it for you."
Naturally, this decision is meeting opposition from prisoners' families and advocacy groups. While they don't deny that conjugal programs are costly, these groups observe that there is no evidence of pregnancies tending to result from them. Indeed, a lot of the existing data seems to reinforce the notion that conjugal visits have a positive impact on both prisoners' lives and the efficiency of penal facilities.
When Yale Law School conducted a comprehensive survey on the prison systems in all 50 states in 2012, it found that in addition to encouraging good behavior, "allowing conjugal visitation may also decrease sexual violence within prisons. Family members and children who visit and thus able to build and sustain more meaningful relationships with their incarcerated parent or family member may benefit tremendously."
Perhaps Jennifer Rogers, head of Mississippi Advocates for Prisoners, put it best when she explained, "We want to keep them together. [Conjugal visits] are the one privilege that allows the men to help keep the family unit together — to act as a man and a husband. It gives us a sense of closeness, not just on a sexual intimacy level, but in the ability to have a conversation in private and to hug each other without being looked at like we are doing something wrong. It's a very big deal."
Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending upon your position), the odds are pretty strong that conjugal privileges will be removed in the state that pioneered them. From a historical and humanitarian standpoint, this is regrettable; from a purely political perspective, it was probably inevitable, given the ideological proclivities of early 21st century Mississippi. What matters most, however, is how this affects the lives of the inmates and external society that this policy is meant to help.
While it's tricky projecting the dollars-and-cents ramifications of measures like these, it's hard not to foresee prisoners becoming less satisfied with their conditions and less likely to cooperate with their new conditions. Depending on one's priorities, this could be viewed as a loss far greater than the costs involved in maintaining a century-old practice.