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Vol. 12, No. 2, 2013
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Robert J. Lewis
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Alex Waterhouse-Hayward

pros and cons



In 1974, Lyons v. Gilligan was one of the first cases in the United States to decide the fate of conjugal visits for prisoners.

At the time, the US District Court for the Northern District of Ohio ruled that husbands have no constitutional right to have sexual relations with their wives while incarcerated.

The drama and legal battles associated with conjugal visits began to gain traction after this ruling, and close to 40 years later, the laws have evolved in several states.

Proponents of the ruling in Lyons v. Gilligan argue that sex should not be a right granted in prison, and by allowing a convicted felon to have sexual relations -- or, any relation with a free civilian in an unsupervised environment -- there is an increased chance of contraband entering and leaving the prison, in addition to violence and the spread of diseases.

Guards, of course, are not present while sexual intercourse is taking place.

According to an article by Mother Jones, the STD rate among American prisoners is quite shocking.

Compared to the general population, disease rates in US prisons are 490% higher for HIV, 500% higher for AIDS, 400% higher for tuberculosis and 2,000% higher for hepatitis C.

In addition, less than one percent of prisons dispense condoms.

In some states, there has been an effort to help reduce the instances of prisoner rape, as 200,000 men are reportedly being raped each year while incarcerated according to the group Stop Prisoner Rape.

Does the high rate of reported rape and the shocking statistics regarding sexually transmitted diseases mean that conjugal visits should be allowed? Should those convicted of murder and other violent crimes be allowed sexual trysts while serving time?

These visits -- also known as an ‘extended family visits’ -- are currently allowed, in some form, in eight states: California, Colorado, Connecticut, Mississippi, New Mexico, New York, Washington and Wyoming.

And, just as the LGBT rights movement is progressing throughout the country, it is also progressing behind bars.

Within the past decade, two states, California and New York, implemented conjugal visits for homosexual prisoners.

The California Department of Corrections announced that it would allow conjugal visits for those of the same gender in June 2007.

The policy, which was enacted after consideration of a 2005 California law, required domestic partners -- both same-sex and heterosexual individuals -- to receive the same rights as straight couples who are married.

California also allows overnight visits with family, which was extended to LGBT inmates.

In an interview with NBC News, Terry Thornton, a spokeswoman for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, said, “Historically, these types of requests were denied. Homosexuality is a touchy subject in prison. We don’t want people to come to harm in prisons, but we need to comply with the law.”

In 2008, then Governor David Patterson ordered New York state agencies to recognize same-sex marriages and civil unions that were performed in other states.

Similar to California, it was decided that homosexual prisoners were not to be discriminated against; however, same-sex conjugal visits were not allowed until 2011.

In an April 2011 interview with The Daily News, Peter Cutler, a spokesman for the Department of Correctional Services, said that New York was allowed these type of conjugal visits, but he was unsure on how it took close to three years for the regulation to be finalized.

“If they seek a furlough based on the partner, it’s likely it would be granted,” Cutler said.

Some states, such as Mississippi, specifically state that the visits are for legally married, heterosexual couples only.

The Mississippi State Of Corrections website states that “conjugal visits are only allowed to eligible legally married inmates (married is defined as the union of a man and a woman). The spouse of the inmate must provide proof of marriage. Common law marriages are not considered legal marriages as defined by MDOC, and therefore do not qualify for conjugal visit privileges.” Mississippi was the first state to allow conjugal visits.

Throughout the world, the issue of conjugal visits is also controversial; in October 2012, it was reported that Joran van der Sloot -- currently in prison for the murder of Stephany Flores and the prime suspect in the 2005 disappearance of American teen Natalee Holloway in Aruba -- had impregnated Leydi Figueroa Uceda.

While it was reported that Sloot and Uceda, who is sometimes cited as his girlfriend, were intimate during an unsupervised prison visit, it was noted by Yahoo News that “It was not clear whether that is allowed or possible under Peruvian prison rules.”

A convicted murderer impregnated a woman while incarcerated? Stories like that, while few and far between, help put the occurrence of conjugal visits into perspective.

In the United States, there are many instances where those guilty of murder are also allowed to get down and dirty.

Mark David Chapman, the convicted killer of John Lennon, is repeatedly approved for these visits with his wife; at times spending 48 hours together in a trailer at Attica Correction Facility in New York state.

The United States Federal Bureau of Prisons does not comply with the state qualifications of these visits, but if one is in a state where conjugal visits are allowed, both the prisoner and the visitor must meet certain qualifications in order for the meeting to take place. The prisoner must be housed in a minimum or medium security facility, show proof of marriage and earn the visits through good behaviour.

It’s terrible to learn about prison rape, sexual frustration that spawns violence and the STD rates that seem to be raging out of control, but when one commits harm against another individual and ends up behind bars, I find it hard to feel sympathy for them not being allowed to have sex. The results of studies intended to determine a relationship between prison violence and conjugal visitation have been inconclusive. According to a 2002 study by Georgia State University, allowing conjugal visits was not shown to reduce prison violence in Mississippi. The purpose of such visitation, the study says, is “to maintain the nuclear family and lessen the emotional stress of an inmate’s spouse.”

For the states that do allow conjugal visits, but bar access to homosexual inmates, the state laws should be reconsidered and they, much to the tune of California and New York, should treat all prisoners equally; whether one believes conjugal visits are acceptable or not.


Wounds from Incarceration
Prisons of the World Unite


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I am for conjugal visits for legally married couples who earn it. In a minimum security facility. I live in NJ where it is not allowed but I think should be. I would love to see this law passed in my lifetime and will do all I can to support it.
1.) If you'd ever spent time behind bars, you'd drop your Calvinist attitude toward conjugal visits. Prison in and of itself is punishment enough. (I taught university classes in Canadian Max units for 10 years).
2.) Conjugal visits have no effect on prison rape frequencies. Prison rape is about social dominance and hierarchy, not biological needs.
Illegality of conjugal visits is particularly tough on wives of prisoners, as any extramarital affair can ultimately lead to suffering violence from the freed spouse or from friends. The social stigma of being a "prison wife" is bad enough.


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