There’s a certain perception about what conjugal visits are, thanks largely to movies and television. But the reality is far from what we see on the large and small screens. In ways, it’s better; in ways, it’s worse, and depending which country an inmate is incarcerated in, the rules are vastly different. For example, it’s horrifying to think of being in prison in Saudi Arabia (or any Middle Eastern country), but in fact, their prisoners sometimes have it the best of all, especially when it comes to conjugal visits. And in Colombia, things are completely opposite from the United States regarding these privileges — just read on to see what I’m talking about.
Even though worldwide, the statistics and facts surrounding the controversial privilege of conjugal visits are quite intriguing, here in our own backyard in North America, the facts are pretty interesting as well. This article seeks to shed light on what conjugal visits actually are and debunk the myth that they’re strictly about sex. From same-sex conjugals to the details of a conjugal visit like the accommodations and length of time they last, the following are 15 little-known facts surrounding this practice that, in America, is becoming less and less common, and in other parts of the world can be completely unheard of or, in some countries, a right and not a privilege. As they say, it’s all about location, location, location.
Here are 15 “arresting” (pun intended) things to know about conjugal visits, near and far.
15. It All Began With Racism and Pr———n
Let’s begin at the beginning, shall we? Not shockingly, the origins of conjugal visits were pretty damn interesting. The first-ever conjugal visits took place in the state of Mississippi in 1918. In the earliest days of these visits, they were reserved only for black prisoners, as it was thought that African-American men had much stronger sex drives than white men and that they wouldn’t work as hard in the cotton fields if they were not sexually satisfied. The very first conjugal visitors were actually prostitutes who were paid to come into the prison (the first prison to do this was a labor camp called “Parchman Farm” in Mississippi), and they would service inmates who were married or single. Decades later, in the 1940s, conjugal visits began to include white males and those of other races, and decades after that, in the 1970s, conjugal visits were open for incarcerated women.
14. They’re Not Really Called “Conjugal Visits”
This fact may be surprising to some who’ve only ever heard of “conjugal visits” and have otherwise thought that prison visits consisted either of these or a regular face-to-face conversation the likes of which we see on Orange is the New Black, where prisoners sit in a cafeteria-like setting and are allowed one hug at the beginning and at the end of each visit, but nothing more. But in fact, the term “conjugal visit” is really not used much anymore, at least not in the United States. Instead, they’re called “extended family visits” or “family reunion visits.” Depending on the prison, variations of these terms also exist. There are several reasons the exact phrasing of the visits have changed, and these include keeping a connection between the prisoner and his family (not just his spouse), to reduce recidivism and prison violence by preserving family ties (evidence suggests that these visits do, in fact, have an effect on these things), and finally, to provide an incentive for good behavior.
13. The “Lavish” Accommodations
“Lavish” is relative, of course, but another fact that might surprise people is that during a conjugal visit or extended family visit, the prisoners and their “guests” are not given just a little room with a guard standing outside of it. Contrary to scenes like the one between Sucre and Maricruz in Prison Break, a conjugal visit takes place in special facilities designed especially for this purpose. While television and movies make it seem like there’s a designated room within the main part of the prison, generally, that’s not the case. For the most part, prisons have cabins, trailers, or other types of housing that they use only for these visits. Some even provide toiletries, just like a hotel! That’s right — many come with things like soap, condoms, lube, towels, and things like that. Some of the rooms even have entertainment such as board games, television, and a DVD player. The prisons that have apartment-style housing even have two bedrooms and a living and dining room. The floor plan above is of an apartment in the Extended Family Visit Unit at the MacDougall-Walker Correctional Institute in the state of Connecticut.
12. Only 1/3 Of Conjugal Visits Take Place Between Spouses Alone
Speaking of Connecticut, this would be a good time to bring up the interesting tidbit that in that state, in order to have a “conjugal visit,” whatever it may be called, an inmate and his visitor/s must have a child present the entire time. A spouse or partner of an inmate with the privilege of conjugal visits must bring the child of that inmate. This is to make it more about family than about sex. But different states (although only four of the 50 United States allow conjugal visits of any sort) have different rules regarding who can or must be present. Some states even allow two related inmates to combine their visits to include extended family. For example, in the state of Washington, a father and a son or two siblings both incarcerated at the same facility can have family visit at the same time, and they would both be allowed to be present at the visit together. Only about one-third of conjugal visits actually take place between spouses alone.
11. Only Four States Still Allow It
There are 50 states in America, yet only four of them allow conjugal visits of any kind. This probably makes sense to most people since the whole point of prison in the first place is to take away the liberties that freedom affords. It’s a punishment, after all, and getting to spend time with family is a definite luxury for the men and women whose crimes got them locked up. Perhaps, that’s why so few states allow it and why the four that do (California, Connecticut, New York, and Washington) are very restrictive about it. Very few inmates actually ever get a conjugal visit, although 20-some years ago, the number of states that allowed these visits was 17. That number has been slowly decreasing, however, for many reasons. For example, in 2014, New Mexico stopped its extended visit program after it was discovered that one prisoner, a convicted murderer, had fathered four children by multiple wives while in prison. Two months prior to that, Mississippi, the state where it all began, also dropped the program for financial reasons.
10. In India, Conjugal Visits Are a Prisoner’s Right
It’s quite the opposite situation regarding conjugal visits in India. In a country that’s name often invokes an initial image in one’s mind of dirt, poverty, and overpopulation, the prisoners have the right to — not the privilege of — conjugal visits. There, a conjugal visit means what many Americans think it means in their own country: a visit to have sex. In India, if an inmate is married, it’s that prisoner’s right to bear children, and he or she can be awarded conjugal visits with a spouse. Good behavior, their crime, their sentence — nothing matters except that the prisoner is married. This law was passed in 2015 and also states that inmates may donate their sperm for reproductive purposes like artificial insemination. It should be noted that while on the opposite side of the planet, in New Mexico — the world’s second-most populated country where you would think reproduction (especially by prisoners) needs to stop — one killer (see number 10 on this list) and the fact that he fathered too many children were the reasons for the state pulling the program. Pictured above is a woman waiting to visit her husband in a jail in Mumbai.
9. Saudi Arabian Prisoners Get One Conjugal Visit Per Month — Per Wife!
A bit to the West of India is the often-frightening (at least to Westerners) country of Saudi Arabia, which is known for its deserts, being the birthplace of Islam, and its harsh laws, especially when it comes to women. So, it’s a bit shocking to learn that laws surrounding prisoners (some of whom have been imprisoned for ridiculous things like having a drink on the airplane to Saudi Arabia, driving as a woman, or taking pictures of buildings) are pretty liberal. Well, if you’re a man, of course. Incarcerated men are permitted one conjugal visit per month. But since in Saudi Arabia, men can have multiple wives, they’re allowed one conjugal visit per wife per month. And it doesn’t end there; there are many more perks to being a prisoner in this country. In fact, in 2014, the government spent $35 million on prisoner perks! Not too shabby. These photos were taken inside of a Saudi prison, and they only begin to show just how good these prisoners have it.
8. German Prisoner Murders Girlfriend During Conjugal Visit
As we make our way around the globe and explore different cultures’ takes on conjugal visits, next up is Germany. This story provides sufficient evidence of why all places should exercise caution when allowing already-convicted criminals the freedom of conjugal visits. In 2010, one inmate murdered his girlfriend during his conjugal visit. Obviously, he never would’ve had the chance had he not been allowed access to her and privacy with her. Klaus-Dieter H. had already been in jail for 20 years for the rape and murder of a child when this happened. The woman, whom he’d met through exchanging letters while incarcerated, had regularly had unsupervised six-hour visits with him before, but during her last one, he strangled her and stabbed her with a steak knife. This, along with a few other instances of lax security at prisons across the country, led to stricter laws in Germany regarding conjugal visits. Pictured above is the Remscheid Prison in Western Germany, where the incident took place.
7. Brazil’s Lax But Sexist Conjugal Visit Laws
Now to Brazil, where the policy regarding conjugal visits is quite sexist. The laws there allow male inmates — whether straight or gay — to indulge in conjugal visits regularly. But the women aren’t permitted such luxuries. According to Human Rights Watch, “In general, conjugal visit policies for male prisoners in Brazil are extremely generous, although the degree of control exercised by the authorities over such visits varies somewhat from state to state. The prisons impose few limitations regarding which prisoners are eligible for conjugal visits — commonly referred to as ‘intimate visits’ — generally, it is only prisoners in disciplinary or administrative segregation who are denied them. All other prisoners can usually receive conjugal visits, which last the same amount of time as regular visits, once a week.”
6. American Visits Last From One Hour to Three Days!
Now, let’s get back to America and the facts about conjugal visits there that most of its residents don’t have any clue about. One thing that I, myself, found shocking was that conjugal visits in the United States typically last anywhere from one hour to three days! That’s essentially a three-day break from prison, and it can happen as often as once per month. During these times, the visitors are able to bring in home-cooked meals or other food, and as we already discussed, the accommodations can be quite cozy. Of course, it is still prison, so there are rules to follow. For example, in California, the visitors and the prisoner must line up to be inspected every four hours, including when they’re sleeping in the middle of the night. All involved are searched before and after the visit, and drug and alcohol tests are often administered to ensure that in the privacy of their visit, nothing illegal (or illegal for the inmates, like alcohol) has been consumed.
5. Eligibility Requirements Are Not Just For Inmates
It kind of goes without saying that not every prisoner is eligible for conjugal visits, as they shouldn’t be. Of the four states that allow these types of visits, only minimum and medium security prisons have the program. Maximum security prisons don’t allow conjugal visits whatsoever; nor do federal prisons. Inmates at the prisons who do participate in extended family visit programs must have a record of good behavior while incarcerated, and they must have a clean bill of health. Spouses and/or family members who choose to visit their imprisoned husbands, wives, or extended family must pass a background check, agree to a physical search, and be registered on the inmate’s visitor list. As we discussed previously, one additional requirement in the state of Connecticut is that the inmate’s child must be present. Other more specific rules vary by state.
4. How Much Does It Cost?
Something that taxpayers are probably concerned about is the cost of these conjugal visits, especially given everything else like the toiletries and whatnot. The visits are mostly free for the visitors, but again, this varies by state. In Washington, for example, the fee is $10 per night. This may not seem like a lot, but critics of the program cite other, less obvious costs. According to one news outlet, “There are costs associated with the staff’s time, having to escort inmates to and from the visitation… Then, 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.” This is why Mississippi ultimately ended conjugal visits of any kind in 2014. Mississippi State Department of Corrections Commissioner Christopher Epps said, “While both the extended family visitation and conjugal visit program involve a small percentage of inmates, the cost, coupled with big-ticket items, adds up. The benefits of the programs don’t outweigh the cost in the overall budget.”
3. Insane Number of Conjugal Visits in Colombia
If ever there were a place that employed the polar opposite of the conjugal visit laws in America, it would probably be the South American country of Colombia. This is because there, not only are conjugal visits the norm, but at just one of the country’s many prisons, there are an astounding 3,500-6,000 women coming every single week! According to good.is, “Every Sunday, approximately 3,500 wives and girlfriends line up to have conjugal visits with inmates, which helps to keep the bond between life on the inside and life on the outside strong for the inmates. During the holidays, the number can swell to 6,00o visitors at Bellavista.” At Bellavista Prison in the country’s capital city of Medellin, there’s so much overcrowding that sometimes, prisoners do not even have a bed or a cell, so it’s hard to imagine as many as 6,000 extra people inside the walls at one time!
2. Conjugal Visits For Same-Sex Couples?
One question that’s been raised is if same-sex marriage applies to people in prison, meaning if they would otherwise qualify for a conjugal visit, would they still be allowed to have one with their same-sex spouse? The answer is yes (depending on location, of course). In the United States, only California (since 2007) and New York (since 2011) allow these visits between gay couples, which is perhaps not very surprising. According to a New York Times article from 2007, “Gay and lesbian prisoners in California will be allowed overnight visits with their partners under a new prison policy, believed to be the first time a state has allowed same-sex conjugal stays. The policy comes more than two years after a 2003 California law provided equal rights for registered domestic partners in California, including those of the same-sex and non-married heterosexuals. Gay and civil rights groups had threatened to sue to permit the conjugal visits in prisons, which they say have been slow to enact changes promised by the law.”
1. The U.K.’s Version of Conjugal Visits
While countries in the United Kingdom are not granted conjugal visits per se, they actually get something that could be even better. England, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland permit something they call “home visits,” which is exactly what it sounds like. Prisoners with only a few weeks or months remaining on a long sentence may be allowed to visit the place and the people he or she will be returning to. Prison authorities feel that maintaining family relationships, as well as giving the inmates time to readjust and get ready for life in the outside world again, are important. According to the United Kingdom’s Department of Justice website, “Home and resettlement leave assists prisoners to re-integrate back into the community and helps maintain family links. For schemes operated by the Prison Service (prisoners on remand must apply to the Courts for temporary release), the overriding consideration is the risk of reoffending and harm to the public, balanced against the prisoners’ human rights. Temporary release is a privilege, which is subject to a satisfactory risk assessment being completed.”
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