For more than a century, the state of Mississippi has allowed the inmates of its prison system to behave as if they are human beings capable of familial relationships, providing well-behaved prisoners the chance to briefly spend time alone with their spouses. On February 1, falling in line with prevailing trends in American justice, the state will stop allowing the visits.
When prisoners are allowed these marital visits, they often engage in sexual intercourse. Mississippi officials are concerned that these acts of sexual intercourse can produce children, who will then suffer the social ills that come with having one or more parents absent from the home. The New York Times quoted the state corrections commissioner, Christopher Epps, as citing "the number of babies being born possibly as a result" as a reason for ending the visits. The state has concluded that it is better, as a matter of morality and policy, for such children not to have the chance to exist.
The ban is being put in place by Epps, but state legislator Richard Bennett is trying to pass legislation to guarantee that such visits are illegal, for reasons he explained to Time magazine:
He believes they foster single-parent families and contribute to the spread of sexually transmitted diseases within prisons. (Inmates must be free of STDs to qualify for conjugal visits in Mississippi.) He acknowledged that he did not have any data to support either belief.
"I see the other side of it," Bennett says. "But I think that my side outweighs it by far of what's right."
Mississippi's program is currently restricted to one-hour visits between married opposite-sex couples. People who study prison policy reportedly believe that that conjugal visits are beneficial to inmates and that the visits also provide corrections officials with a powerful means of encouraging good behavior. The latter was the premise behind the original creation of the program, at the state penitentiary, as Time explains:
The state ran the prison, a vast patch of cleared forest and former plantation lands in the Mississippi Delta known as Parchman Farm, as a for-profit operation. The thousands of inmates, most of them black, were the free labor. Incentivizing prisoners with the possibility of sex, it was believed, could make them more productive in the fields, according to Heather Thompson, a professor of history at Temple University who studies the U.S. prison system. And more productive prisoners meant more money for the state.
Mississippi is no longer interested in extracting more value from its inmates, nor in helping rehabilitate them. Last year, only 155 prisoners participated in Mississippi's program, out of a state prison population averaging 22,124 inmates.
Now many of you will go to the comments and write about how these people are animals who had no right to any such program in the first place, because that is the contemporary mainstream of thought on American prison policy.
[Image via AP]