At NYT, "As Conjugal Visits Fade, a Lifeline to Inmates’ Spouses Is Lost":
PARCHMAN, Miss. — To spend time alone with the man she married four months ago, Ebony Fisher, 25, drives nearly three hours through the flat cotton fields of the Mississippi Delta until she pulls into a gravel lot next to the state’s rural penitentiary.Well, there's your Jim Crow history lesson for the day.
She joins her husband, who in 2008 began serving a 60-year sentence for rape, aggravated assault and arson, in a small room with a metal bunk and a bathroom. For an hour, they get to act like a married couple.
“That 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 Ms. Fisher, who is studying to be a surgical assistant.
But conjugal visits, a concept that started here at the Mississippi State Penitentiary as a prisoner-control practice in the days of Jim Crow, will soon be over. Christopher B. Epps, the prison commissioner, plans to end the program Feb. 1, citing budgetary reasons and “the number of babies being born possibly as a result.” In Mississippi, where more than 22,000 prisoners are incarcerated — the second-highest rate in the nation — 155 inmates participated last year.
Since they began here in the early 1900s, when the penitentiary was just called Parchman Farm, conjugal visits have been an unlikely barometer of racial mores and changing times both in Mississippi and in states like California and New York, where married same-sex couples can participate.
In the 1970s, new prisons often included special housing for what had come to be called extended family visits. But by 1993, only 17 states allowed conjugal visits. Mississippi is one of just five that have active programs.
In California and New York, they are called family visits and are designed to help keep families together in an environment that approximates home. Some research shows that they can help prisoners better integrate back into the mainstream after their release.
Visits in those states, and in Washington and New Mexico, can last 24 hours to three days. They are spent in small apartments or trailers, often with children and grandparents, largely left alone by prison guards. Visitors bring their own food and sometimes have a barbecue.
In New York, about 8,000 family visits were arranged last year, a figure that corrections officials say has declined. Of those, 48 percent were with spouses. The rest were with family members such as children or parents.
Studies cited by Yale law students in a 2012 review of family visitation programs showed that the programs could work as powerful incentives for good behavior, help reduce sexual activity among prisoners and help strengthen families.
Though what qualifies prisoners for the visits varies from state to state, all must have records of good behavior and be legally married. In most, prisoners in maximum security or on death row are denied the visits. Federal prisons do not allow them.
Mississippi ended its more extensive family visitations last year but left in place the hourlong visits, which since their inception a century ago have been designed more as a way to control inmates than nurture relationships.
“Conjugal visits have been a privilege,” said Tara Booth, a spokeswoman for the Mississippi Corrections Department. “So in that sense, it has, as other internal opportunities, helped to maintain order.”
The notion of allowing prisoners to have sex was born here shortly after Parchman Farm opened in 1903 as a series of work camps on 1,600 acres of rich Delta farmland. Inmates, most of whom were black, were used as free farm labor in an arrangement not that far removed from slavery.
Set in the middle of the birthplace of the blues, Parchman Farm has been the subject of many songs written by classic bluesmen like Bukka White and others who did time here.
The warden at the time believed sex could be used to compel black men to work harder in the fields, according to a history on the practice produced in the 1970s by Tyler Fletcher, who founded the department of criminal justice at the University of Southern Mississippi in 1973. So black prisoners were allowed time on Sunday with spouses or, more often, prostitutes...
Still more at the link.