A decent proposal: to reduce recidivism, more prisons should allow conjugal visits

Matt Stroud

It’s become a joke – the idea of conjugal visits. It’s an entire series of jokes in Arrested Development and it’s something I hear about regularly (in jest) when I share with anyone that I occasionally write about prison issues. But maybe it’s something legislators should take seriously. 

The Economist has a short piece on conjugal visits in this week’s print edition. It’s worth some thought:

In September Qatar’s Central Prison unveiled villas for spouses and children to visit married inmates. Turkish prisons introduced them for the first time earlier this year. Authorities in Costa Rica, Israel and Mexico have in recent years allowed them for homosexual inmates. Even Saudi Arabia and Iran have long allowed them for married prisoners. And many Latin American countries allow private visits for unmarried inmates too.

But only five American states allow them, and in Britain they are banned. State officials in Ohio feared that they would lead to more disease and pregnancies (which touches on another delicate issue: condoms in prisons). Dr Chris Hensley, a criminologist who has advised American prisons, says even the phrase conjugal visit” has a deviant connotation”. Officials laugh when he mentions it. Cindy Struckman-Johnson, of America’s National Prison Rape Elimination Commission, says it shunned the issue in its researches for fear of stirring up controversy. Paul Nuttall, a British member of the European Parliament, decried a study of the issue as wasteful, complaining that prisons were already like holiday camps” when they should be a punishment.

Yet evidence does suggest that conjugal visits not only reduce prison violence but also reduce recidivism by preserving family ties. In Canada inmates are allowed every two months to spend up to 72 hours in a flat with their spouses, partners, children, parents or in-laws. We get to cook together, play cards and bingo, and be a family…The children get to know their father,” remarks a female relative of an offender in Ontario. The visits, says an inmate, let us know that someone still cares about us”.

Canada’s Correctional Service has advised the Trinidadian government on creating a similar programme. Perhaps America and Britain, the leading incarcerators in the world and western Europe respectively, will one day be open to similar counsel.

The evidence in favor of conjugal visits goes back at least to 1969, when the so-called Mississippi Experiment” helped an author to conclude that while the conjugal visit does not fulfill the prisoners’ total sexual needs, it does aid in maintainting inmate male self-image and reduces the need for homosexual relations.” More recent studies suggest the same, and just last year, a study concluded that even simple visitation – with or without a sexual component – can reduce recidivism. Of course there are concerns about the possibility of spreading disease and (something I hadn’t even considered) that male perpetrators of family violence remain predisposed to committing further violence during conjugal visits.”

But if conjugal visits could keep prisoners from reoffending once they get out, it seems worth at least some consideration in more prisons nationwide.

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Matt Stroud is a former Innocence Network investigator who now covers the U.S. legal system, in all its glory and ugliness, as a freelance journalist. Follow him on Twitter @ssttrroouudd. Email him at stroudjournalism<at>gmail.com.
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