As conjugal visits fade, a lifeline to inmates’ spouses is lost

KIM SEVERSON New York Times News Service Published Jan 13, 2014 at 07:36PM

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.

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 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.

By the 1940s, makeshift lean-tos and shacks built by inmates for the visits gave way to formal facilities, and white inmates were more likely participants than black ones.

Announced in December, the decision to stop the hourlong conjugal visits came as a surprise to the handful of prison spouses who rely on them. Several have taken to Facebook and other online forums and written to lawmakers to try to save what they say is an essential part of their relationships. A Mississippi prisoners’ advocacy group and a Memphis-based civil rights organization have planned a rally for Friday in Jackson, the state capital, to protest the policy change.

But state Rep. Richard Bennett, Republican of Long Beach, wants the practice stopped, and he said no amount of protest would change his mind.

He said he learned about conjugal visits a few years ago when an elementary school principal told him a student of hers had shown up with a photograph of a new sibling. The student’s mother was incarcerated. The baby had been conceived during a conjugal visit.

In 2012, Bennett introduced a bill to end the visits. It did not get much attention, so he will try again when the Legislature meets this month. He said he was aware of Epps’ plans, but he wanted a permanent ban. Officials have not offered any figures on the number of babies born or the program’s cost.

“I don’t think it’s fair to the children conceived and to the taxpayers,” he said. “You are in prison for a reason. You are in there to pay your debt, and conjugal visits should not be part of the deal.”

But Tina Perry, 49, a production manager at a small newspaper in eastern Mississippi, said the spouses of prisoners should not be forced to suffer any more than they already do. And the state, she said, should not take away something that is inexpensive and infrequent but essential.

She has been visiting her husband in prison every couple of months for eight years. He is serving time for molesting his former wife’s daughter, and has 19 more years to go. Perry said he was innocent. She called the surroundings, a small room with a thin mattress, “nasty” but said it was an hour she treasured nonetheless.

“It’s your husband,” she said. “You take what you can get.”

Fisher, whose husband is facing 60 years, said she was heartbroken because no more conjugal visits meant no children.

“Let me have that option,” she said. “I feel like they are taking away my choice.”

But officials who want the practice to be stopped say the state should not be helping to produce children who will be raised by single parents and possibly need state support.

There are concerns, too, about cost and HIV transmission.

Women interviewed about the visits said they would be willing to pay to defray costs. And they made it clear that the visits were not about the sex. They are about privacy in a world where every letter is opened, every call monitored. Regular visits are crowded with other prisoners and their families.

“You never just get husband and wife time,” said Amy Parsons, an office worker in Arkansas who drives eight hours to see her husband, who was convicted of aggravated assault. His release date is 2022.

“It’s not romantic, but it doesn’t matter,” she said. “I just want people to realize it’s about the alone time with your husband. I understand they are in there for a reason. Obviously they did something wrong. But they are human, too. So are we.”

William Widmer / The New York Times The entrance to the Mississippi State Penitentiary, long known as Parchman Farm, in Parchman, Miss., Dec. 20, 2013. Citing budgetary constraints, the state, which was the first to allow conjugal visits, will end them on Feb. 1, and similar programs are on the wane nationally.
William Widmer / The New York Times Ebony Fisher, who will soon no longer be able to make conjugal visits to her husband in the state penitentiary, near her mother's house on the outskirts of Vicksburg, Miss., Dec. 20, 2013.