Conjugal Visits

teardownFrom The Marshall Project

Why they’re disappearing, which states still use them, and what really happens during those overnight visits.

Although conjugal, or “extended,” visits play a huge role in prison lore, in reality, very few inmates have access to them. Twenty years ago, 17 states offered these programs. Today, just four do: California, Connecticut, New York, and Washington. No federal prison offers extended, private visitation.

Last April, New Mexico became the latest state to cancel conjugal visits for prisoners after a local television station revealed that a convicted killer, Michael Guzman, had fathered four children with several different wives while in prison. Mississippi had made a similar decision in January 2014.

A Stay at the “Boneyard”

In every state that offers extended visits, good prison behavior is a prerequisite, and inmates convicted of sex crimes or domestic violence, or who have life sentences, are typically excluded.

The visits range from one hour to three days, and happen as often as once per month. They take place in trailers, small apartments, or “family cottages” built just for this purpose, and are sometimes referred to as “boneyards.” At the MacDougall-Walker Correctional Institution in Connecticut, units are set up to imitate homes. Each apartment has two bedrooms, a dining room, and a living room with a TV, DVD player, playing cards, a Jenga game, and dominoes. In Washington, any DVD a family watches must be G-rated. Kitchens are typically fully functional, and visitors can bring in fresh ingredients or cooked food from the outside.

In California, inmates and their visitors must line up for inspection every four hours throughout the weekend visit, even in the middle of the night. Many prisons provide condoms for free. In New Mexico, before the extended visitation program was canceled, the prisoner’s spouse could be informed if the inmate had tested positive for a sexually transmitted infection. After the visit, both inmates and visitors are searched, and inmates typically have their urine tested to check for drugs or alcohol, which are strictly prohibited.

What Everyone Gets Wrong

Conjugal visits are not just about sex. In fact, they are officially called “family visits,” and kids are allowed to stay overnight, too. In Connecticut, a spouse or partner can’t come alone: the child of the inmate must be present. In Washington, two related inmates at the same facility, such as siblings or a father and son, are allowed to arrange a joint visit with family members from the outside. Only about a third of extended visits in the state take place between spouses alone.

The Insider’s Perspective

Serena L. was an inmate at the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility in New York from 1999 to 2002. During that time, she qualified for just one overnight trailer visit. Her 15-year-old sister, who lived on Long Island, persuaded a friend to drive her to the prison. “I remember her coming through the gate, carrying two big bags of food, and she said, ‘I got your favorite: Oreos!’ ” Serena says. “It was like a little slumber party for us. When I was first incarcerated, we had tried to write to each other and talk to each other by phone, but there was lots we weren’t really emotionally able to come to terms with until we had that private space, without a CO watching, to do it.”

The (Checkered) History

Conjugal visits began around 1918 at Parchman Farm, a labor camp in Mississippi. At first, the visits were for black prisoners only, and the visitors were local prostitutes, who arrived on Sundays and were paid to service both married and single inmates. According to historian David Oshinsky, Jim Crow-era prison officials believed African-American men had stronger sex drives than whites, and would not work as hard in the cotton fields if they were not sexually sated. The program expanded in the 1940s to include white, male inmates and their wives, and in the 1970s to include female inmates.