BOGUE: Mississippi blues

Conjugal visits can be used as a way to help rehabilitate prisoners

On Feb. 1 of this year, the Mississippi State Penitentiary plans to officially end the practice of allowing married prisoners to spend time alone with their spouses. These brief “conjugal visits,” which were introduced in the Jim Crow south under the racist assumption that the passions of black men would be tamed through sexual intercourse, are a rarity in the United States. Only five other states allow inmates to have time alone with their spouses: California, Connecticut, New Mexico, New York and Washington. Officials in Mississippi, uncomfortable with the idea of a child being conceived by an inmate, plan to end what they see as a wasteful and indulgent privilege. They are wrong to do so.

More than 650,000 ex-convicts are released from prison every year. Presumably, we would want to do everything in our power to ensure that those who commit crimes will not do so again upon leaving the walls of the penitentiary. One might say that the entire purpose of prisons can be summed up with a simple idea: they exist to prevent crime. Yet, considering our national recidivism rate of 52 percent, it is clear our prisons are failing at this fundamental duty. Yes, prisons should punish; those in the U.S. satisfy this requirement abundantly. But they should also reform and rehabilitate. To prevent more than half of those 650,000 released inmates from turning back to crime, we should seek to set them on a new path during the time they are secluded from society.

The motivation behind efforts to end — or prevent — conjugal visits is typically based on an antiquated idea of effective punishment. Thanks to modern psychology, the work of numerous sociologists and years of observation, we now know that traditional methods of imprisonment tend to cause more problems than they solve. There is little in the scientific literature to suggest that dehumanizing a person is an effective way of reforming him, and rare is the prison in the U.S. that does not belittle, demean or isolate its inmates. This is through no fault of the prison guards or superintendents. Our entire system is set up to serve a primarily punitive, rather than rehabilitative, function. Politicians who wish to be seen as “tough on crime” support longer and harsher sentences and fewer privileges for inmates. The logic is simple and intuitive: they broke our laws, we take their rights.

Rehabilitation isn’t an excuse to give inmates flat-screen TVs or make our penitentiaries luxury hotels. It’s a critical look at the ways in which prisons change those who enter them in profound and irreversible ways, generating anti-social behavior, minimizing dignity and doing little to correct the habits that led them to be locked up in the first place. Where possible, we should fight these effects.

And thus, the conjugal visits. Although relatively uncommon in the U.S., they are widely practiced abroad, and for good reason: they allow prisoners to feel human again. They reinforce bonds of love and companionship, strengthen family ties and break the deadening effect of the cold prison walls. Research suggests that conjugal visits reduce prisoner violence and recidivism while also acting as an incentive for good behavior. When the situation is presented frankly, it is difficult to imagine why anyone would be against such visits. Shouldn’t we be encouraging the most isolated members of society to continue to foster the few positive relationships and connections they have left? It strains credulity to argue that we should seek to isolate them further.

This argument should not be confused as one that is easy on crime or overly forgiving of those who break our nation’s laws. It should go without saying that prisons should also be places of punishment. We err, however, when we fail to acknowledge their rehabilitative role as well. In purely selfish terms, we do ourselves a disservice by having jails that foster or exacerbate inmates’ criminal tendencies. Once you consider the malleable and complex human lives that are contained within the walls of our nation’s jails and prisons — there are millions — the argument for rehabilitation becomes even stronger. Mississippi, learn from our nation’s failures. Your citizens and your prisoners deserve better.

Russell Bogue is an Opinion columnist for The Cavalier Daily. His columns run Wednesdays.

related stories