New Mexico Ending Conjugal Visits for Prisoners

George Lavender

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New Mexico is the latest state to announce it is doing away with conjugal visits for prisoners. From May, the state will end a decades-old policy permitting some prisoners to receive private visits from their spouses. The number of states permitting conjugal visits has fallen dramatically in the past 20 years, from 17 in 1993 to 5 in 2013, and the number of inmates entitled to receive such visits in states that do allow them, is small. Chris Quintana of the Santa Fe New Mexican reports.

Alex Tomlin, a spokeswoman with the Corrections Department, said about 150 of the 7,000 inmates in the state’s prison system would be affected by the policy change. New Mexico is one of the last states to dump conjugal visits, while New York, California, Washington and Connecticut still offer them to prisoners.

Tomlin said the program’s associated costs, such as security and maintenance, are about $120,000 annually.

The department doesn’t mind those costs, Corrections Secretary Gregg Marcantel said, but a two-year evaluation of the program revealed the money could be better spent elsewhere.

When I saw this policy two years ago, I asked what it does for public safety,” Marcantel said. What does it do to help reduce recidivism? I looked at the relative research, and the problem is that I found no evidence.”

Marcantel said conjugal visits can be used as incentives to help manage prisoner behavior, but they also come with a fair share of problems. For example, he said, a conjugal visit introduces the possibility of sexually transmitted diseases into the prison population, potential contraband and the chance of pregnancy.

Marcantel said the well-intentioned” conjugal visit policy started nearly 30 years ago as a result of the deadly riot at the prison south of Santa Fe in 1980.

The alternative? Seminars in which family members can commingle with inmates. A news release on the policy change stated that the classes would focus on topics such as balancing a checkbook, raising a child while incarcerated and dealing with grief.

Tomlin said the seminars would occur more frequently than the overnight visits, granting inmates more access to their families. For the majority of inmates, these changes are exciting,” the release stated.

The seminars would benefit close to 6,000 inmates, Tomlin said. Lower-level inmates would get access to the activities quarterly, while higher-level inmates would get the family visits and classes once or twice a year. Some inmates, those designated as Level 5 and Level 6 prisoners, would not be allowed to participate in the program because of their predatory nature” and the risk they present to other inmates and staff, Tomlin said.

In comparison, only inmates at Level 3 and below had been eligible for overnight visits. And Tomlin said getting approval for a conjugal visit wasn’t easily. The perk required an application, proof of a marriage license and often a long waiting period.

A local activist for prisoner rights, Mara Taub, said conjugal visits are healthy for families, and she thought taking away the benefit seemed punitive and self-defeating.”

It’s very unfortunate,” Taub said. Did they ask the prisoners what they would prefer?”

To an extent, yes, Marcantel responded. He said he did host a number of town hall-style meetings with the prisoners to address the proposal to end conjugal visits, and many inmates weren’t happy to lose their conjugal visits.

But New Mexico’s conjugal visit policy came under fire recently after news outlets revealed that convicted killer and rapist Michael Guzman had been married several times and fathered multiple children while serving a life sentence. Continue reading…

New Mexico follows Mississippi’s Department of Corrections which announced in January it was ending conjugal visits in its prisons. In a statement Commissioner Christopher Epps said “(T)here 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.” Epps also indicated that the decision was also about preventing pregnancies “..even though we provide contraception, we have no idea how many women are getting pregnant only for the child to be raised by one parent.” 

Wednesday’s announcement leaves just three states that still allow such visits; California, New York, and Washington. Four other states, Colorado, Connecticut, Nebraska and South Dakota, allow for overnight visits with children or grandchildren. 

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George Lavender is an award-winning radio and print journalist based in Los Angeles. Follow him on Twitter @GeorgeLavender.
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