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First state to approve conjugal visits prepares to end program, citing costs

  • May 24, 2011: Inmates make phone calls from their cell at a county jail in Santa Ana, Calif.Reuters

Starting next month, prisoners in Mississippi will no longer be legally allowed to get busy behind bars.

Citing the cost of cleanup and other expenses, and unexpected pregnancies, the first state in the country to allow its inmates conjugal visits will be ending its program Feb. 1. The decision to wind down the century-old practice came after Republican state Rep. Richard Bennett threatened to reintroduce a bill that would end the visits for good. 

“As conservative as Mississippi is, it does surprise me that we were the birthplace of conjugal visits,” Bennett told FoxNews.com Monday. “Having these visits is not my idea of family bonding.” 

Instead of waiting on Mississippi lawmakers, state Department of Corrections Commissioner Christopher Epps decided to shut down the program himself at the end of the month.

Conjugal visits, sometimes called extended family visits, are provided on a state-by-state basis and are not offered on a federal level. Inmates who are eligible usually have immaculate records in prison and are within a year of their release. Health checks are provided before a visit is approved.

Mississippi is among the six remaining states that still allow prisoners private time with their families and significant others. In 1993, 17 states had some type of conjugal program. Now, the programs only exist in Mississippi, California, Connecticut, New Mexico, New York and Washington.

In Mississippi and California, inmates meeting must be legally married. In 2007, California made conjugal visits available to same-sex couples who are in a civil union or married. New York followed suit in 2011.

In other states like Washington, the inmate must pay a $10-per-night fee for the use of a semi-private setting.

In Mississippi, eligible inmates are given one hour for a conjugal visit in a private area. They are issued soap, tissues, sheets, pillowcases and condoms, the Mississippi Department of Corrections told FoxNews.com. 

But critics cite the costs. 

“There 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 said in a statement last week, citing reasons why the program was being ended. 

“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,” he added.

That’s not sitting well with some prisoner rights groups that argue stopping the program will damage prisoner morale.

Mississippi Advocates for Prisoners Director Kelly Muscolino, whose group is planning a rally Friday in Jackson, Miss., against ending the program, says conjugal visits aren’t just for sex.

“They allow inmates to build a bond with their loved ones, provide them with an outlet for emotion, and build confidence in knowing that they are not forgotten and that they are loved,” Muscolino, the wife of an inmate, told the Clarion-Ledger newspaper.

But Bennett believes giving prisoners private X-rated time sends the wrong message.

“People are in prison for a reason,” Bennett said. “It’s like taking a child, putting him in time out and then saying, ‘I don’t want you to be sad while you’re in here so tell me your favorite thing – maybe an Xbox – and I’ll get it for you.”

Not everyone is sold on his reasoning.

“Political posturing has triumphed once again over common sense,” John Boston, the director of The Legal Aid Society’s Prisoners’ Rights Project, told FoxNews.com. “This is really dumb. If there is one thing we know about recidivism, it is that maintaining strong family ties is the one thing that refutes it.”

According to a 2012 Yale Law School survey of all 50 states, researchers found that participation in programs that allow conjugal visits served as a “powerful incentive” for good behavior.

“Allowing conjugal visitation may also decrease sexual violence within prisons. Family members and children who visit and thus able to build and sustain more meaningful relationships with their incarcerated parent or family member may benefit tremendously,” the study found.

Of the more than 22,000 inmates, only 155 inmates were allowed conjugal visits in the last fiscal year, prison officials 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," Epps said. "The benefits of the programs don't outweigh the cost in the overall budget." 

While there may be data on the benefits of conjugal visits, it is not widely documented on how much it costs the state to run a program.

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