Earlier this month, the state of Mississippi decided to end conjugal visitation for its prisoners; the program budget and the creation of more single parents are the primary reasons. In the United States, only a few states currently allow “conjugal visits,” or visitation designed to allow privacy between spouses for the purposes of fostering intimacy, which may or may not include having sexual relations.
Twenty years ago, about one third of states allowed some form of conjugal visit. But today, only prisoners in California, New York, New Mexico, Washington, and Mississippi are afforded the privilege. Conjugal visits generally range from an hour to 48 hours, depending on the state. And prisoners are reminded that these visits are a privilege, not a constitutional right, so many people must earn them through good behavior while incarcerated.
Blacks are disproportionately incarcerated compared to White Americans, and the effects of incarceration are plenty. Families are broken, relationships are ended, jobs are lost, and lives are often irrevocably changed. African-American men make up at least 40% of all inmates, and one in 100 African-American women are in prison.
Prisoners and their loved ones are often only able to survive these sentences by doing their best to maintain as close familial connections as possible. These statistics made me think about the ways in which people may be affected by limited conjugal visitation rights, and how African-Americans are even more negatively affected by the rules surrounding access to sexual intimacy during incarceration.
Like with all Americans, marriage rates continue to decline among African-Americans, but the rates are more striking when compared to those for White Americans. One of the primary explanations is economic: African-Americans are disproportionately poor, and people facing ongoing financial issues are less likely to get married. This doesn’t speak to long-term relationships or cohabitation, however, and the prevalence among Blacks in building families this way is often overlooked.
So even if a prisoner of color is incarcerated in a state that does make provisions for conjugal visitation, s/he is less likely to be granted the privilege because s/he is less likely to be legally married. If that prisoner is in a same-sex relationship, accessing this privilege is nearly impossible for most, as same-sex marriage is only legal in 18 states, and only two states allowing conjugal visits (New York and California) extend the privilege to married same-sex couples.
Some argue that when a person is incarcerated, s/he deserves no special privileges, and some are even against prisoners having access to amenities like cable TV and Internet access. The thought is that people are there to serve time and be punished for the crimes they committed, not afforded “luxuries” that many outside of prisons don’t have access to.
Is sex a luxury, though?
Psychologist Abraham Maslow argued that sex is one of human beings’ essential physiological needs, and many other doctors affirm the positive impact of pleasurable sexual activity on one’s emotional state and psyche. Many victims and their families bristle at the idea of prisoners being able to “enjoy” any part of their sentence, so they continue to advocate for the complete abolition of conjugal privileges. Lawmakers seem to agree, so provisions made for sexual activity with external partners are extremely rare, despite evidence showing that these visits can be beneficial in reducing recidivism and aiding re-entry efforts.
This does not (of course) mean prisoners are not having sex, however. Despite prisons disallowing sex between inmates, a recent report based on a Columbia University study found that sex between men in prison, for example, is not only commonplace, but a significant contributor to the spread of HIV between African-American male prisoners especially—and among those who come into sexual contact with them after they are released.
The study found that men report sexual deprivation as being the primary reason they engage in same-sex relations. And while rape does occur, most of the sexual activity is consensual and voluntary. The men often speak negatively about it, however, and don’t readily admit to it when they’re released—which can endanger the women they go on to have sex with, since less than half of prison systems currently provide HIV testing of inmates prior to release.
A 2004 report found that 90 percent of female inmates report having engaged in sex with other female inmates, and that sex is at the center of most prisoner conflicts. Some women report that because many of the women identify as “studs,” and present in more traditionally masculine ways, they are seen as viable substitutes for men when it comes to indulging in sexual pleasure. There is bullying, of course, and women don’t have an easier time just because they are women; women report feeling forced into partnered positions against their will. Women are also more likely to be subjected to sexual abuse by prison employees, who take advantage of the fact that criminals are less likely to evoke sympathy for the suffering they endure while in jail.
I admit I’m not entirely sure about my own position on this. On one hand, I understand that not everyone imprisoned is guilty, and there are those who are unjustly forced to serve time for crimes they did not commit. The added deprivation of access to loved ones, especially spouses and romantic partners, makes the suffering even greater. I also agree with studies that highlight the benefits of allowing conjugal visits for prisoners. Recovery is the goal we should aim for when releasing prisoners back into the communities, and these types of intimate connections can be of great help. And, if what prisoners report is true, allowing them access to sex with loved ones might decrease the less-than-ideal instances of sex between inmates.
I also understand that providing extended private access to visitors can contribute to an increase in contraband in prisons, as well as the spread of HIV. Since most prisoners aren’t tested for HIV while in prison, and prisons are generally against distributing condoms (officials argue this promotes sexual activity), there’s an increased risk they can pass it on to people outside from people they contracted it from inside.
Conjugal visitation privileges are also used as a leverage to encourage good behavior, and I’m against using sex as a bargaining tool under any circumstances. By the looks of things though, conjugal visitation rights might eventually be all but gone from prisons across the country, so this may not even be an issue before long. But there are advocates out there fighting hard to implement and/or restore these privileges, so we’ll just keep an eye on things and see what becomes of their efforts.
Feminista Jones is a sex-positive Black feminist, social worker and blogger from New York City. She writes about gender, race, politics, mental health and sexuality at FeministaJones.com. Follow her on Twitter at @FeministaJones.