The Origin of Conjugal Visits in America
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The Origin of Conjugal Visits in America

How they combined with Pig Laws and Convict Leasing to perpetuate slavery

Conjugal visits occur when an inmate is allowed a private visit outside the scrutiny of guards with their partner, usually a spouse, typically to have sex. There is little consistency around the world and in America as to whether conjugal visits are allowed. Even within countries that would enable such visits, it may depend on the particular city or prison involved. In the United States, federal prisons don’t allow conjugal visits, and only four states do, though the number was as high as seventeen in the 1990s. California, New York, Connecticut, and Washington are the four states that recognize conjugal rights. Connecticut doesn’t count as their “family visits” require a child to be present.

Some countries have a tradition of not housing many long-term prisoners. Sentences are either relatively short, or there is the death penalty, so conjugal visits aren’t required. The reasons for conjugal visits are that they keep prisoners under control, lead to more stable families, and give prisoners a better chance of successful rehabilitation. The reasons not to provide these visits relate to security, contraband, staffing, and viewing incarceration as punishment with no special privileges. The Supreme Court in America has found that conjugal visits are not a right.

The first state to legalize conjugal visits in America was Mississippi in 1965, though they had been informally allowed at the Mississippi State Penitentiary (Parchman Farm) long before. Prostitutes would be brought in to have sex with the inmates. The goal had nothing to do with stable families or reduced recidivism. The goal was to increase productivity, giving the men incentives to perform better the manual labor required on the farm. Consider Parchman precisely like a slave plantation where all that mattered was the production of cotton first, now fruits and vegetables.

Parchman Farms was built by inmates in 1901. You might think this was 36 years after the end of slavery, but there was little to mark the difference except prison uniforms. Parchman was the largest plantation in Mississippi and needed prisoners to work its fields and to lease to neighboring plantations. The need for prisoners was exacerbated by the fact that 1 in 6 died in captivity due to overwork and poor conditions. Historian David Oshinsky wrote about the conditions in his book Worse Than Slavery: Parchman Farm and the Ordeal of Jim Crow Justice.

“The plantation owners, as best they could, wanted Blacks to return to the same place as they had been as slaves," Oshinskyu wrote. "By 1880, at least 1 convict in 4 was an adolescent or a child — a percentage that did not diminish over time. They needed a workforce. The best workforce and the cheapest workforce they could get were convicts who were being arrested for largely minor offenses and then leased out for $9 a month. Working prisoners to literal death was so commonplace that not a single leased convict ever lived long enough to serve a sentence of ten years or more.”

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Two things combined to create the need and supply of inmates. The convict leasing system allowed the prison to utilize all the inmates they could provide by sending those not working on the prison farm to other plantations. The “Pig Laws” of the era made every minor offense worthy of prison. The theft of a small pig to feed one’s family merited up to a five-year sentence. Once sentenced to Parchman Farm, the inmates had few incentives to work hard. Public whippings only worked so much, and living long enough to serve one’s sentence was in question. Someone got the idea to try out conjugal visits, which could also be taken away at will to motivate the prisoners.

Conjugal visits began at Parchman in 1918 in “red houses” built by the prisoners. The visits were mostly limited to Black prisoners, who made up most of the prison population. The white prisoners generally served lesser sentences for the same offenses and didn’t die in prison at nearly the same rate. It was felt that Black men had stronger sexual urges and would be more pliable once satisfied. Some were allowed to see their wives, while others chose from the prostitutes bused in.

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Prison officials saw these visits as a means to manipulate the prisoners and also control the “sex problem,” which was a euphemism for rape. They were disturbed by homosexuality far more than working men to death.

"Officials at Parchman consistently praise the conjugal visit as a highly important factor in reducing homosexuality, boosting inmate morale, and… comprising an important factor in preserving marriages," wrote  sociologist Columbus B Hopper.

Mississippi ended conjugal visits in 2014. Many states had evolved to furloughs for prisoners, allowing prisoners short visits with their families. On June 6, 1986, William Horton was on his tenth furlough from a Massachusetts prison when he failed to return. Ten months later, he raped a white woman after tying up and stabbing her fiance. William was highlighted in the 1988 presidential campaign when George Bush and Lee Atwater produced the “Willie Horton” ads featuring William’s mug shot. William was dark-skinned with an unkempt beard, and his image was used to scare Americans of Black men while attacking Democratic candidate Michael Dukakis, who was governor of Massachusetts when Horton was released on furlough. William was never nicknamed “Willie” until the Bush campaign gave him that to foster the stereotype.

Many states that offered furloughs for any reason either cut back those programs or ended them. Black men were the initial reason for conjugal visits, and a Black man was made responsible for the end of many programs.

I think of the scene from The Dirty Dozen when the twelve prisoners were treated to a night with prostitutes before engaging in a potentially deadly mission. It was presented as a compassionate gesture for deserving men. That was hardly the reason for conjugal visits at Parchman, where the men were incentivized to work until they dropped.

This post originally appeared on Medium and is edited and republished with author's permission. Read more of William Spivey's work on Medium. And if you dig his words, buy the man a coffee.