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When considering the notion of sexual encounters in prison, perhaps two key concepts come into mind: secrecy and aggression. With the aid of mass media, life behind bars has been portrayed as a world of danger, in which dominance has to be asserted for the sake of personal safety. One example would be the prominence of “dropping the soap” jokes, not only trivializing the homosexual incarceration experience, but also dramatizing the horrors of imprisonment. However, it is vital to note that, historically speaking, attempts at legislation have been made in an effort to better control and regulate the sexual climate of prison. Conjugal visits, in particular, were initially put into practice to keep inmates in line, allowing them the short-term enjoyment of physical pleasures to compensate for their long-term sentences and labors. Over time, the appeal of conjugal visits gradually wore off, as concerns for safety and sustainability soon rendered the program impractical for many correctional facilities nationwide. Now, only four states continue this practice: New York, Washington, California, and Connecticut.
What makes the history of conjugal visits fascinating is how it falls within the intersection of the public and private, privacy and intimacy, and race, gender, and sexuality. The practice similarly introduces sexual interactions as a mode of control and, perhaps, a fundamental right, capable of restoring a sense of normalcy to inmates’ lives and lessening their chances of recidivism (Sanburn, 2014). Sex, then, is no longer a private affair, as it is made into a public concern for the sake of general public benefit. Not to mention, it also connects with broader concepts of morality, incarceration, and (de)humanization. Through this essay, I aim to discuss the dark, problematic roots of conjugal visits, before delving into the act of public sex and whether any semblance of privacy can exist within such circumstances. Following this, I will be discussing how the practice has evolved, then considering the various purposes both sex and privacy serve in conjugal visits and whether I agree with its usage in prisons.
It is largely believed that the first known implementation of conjugal visits took place around the early 1900s, at Parchman Farm of the Mississippi State Penitentiary, a plantation-like facility containing numerous African-American prisoners and laborers alike. In order to ensure better behavior and productivity, “the guards had organized the arrival of prostitutes who had sex with inmates in the rows of Parchman’s cotton fields” (Mayyasi, 2015). Sex, in this instance, was worked into a for-profit “paternalistic” reward system: if you give some, you get some. Yet, it’s pertinent to realize that much of this took place within the state facility without actual legal parameters; “the guards’ actions [of bringing in prostitutes] were not prison policy, but administrators tolerated the practice for decades,” as Mayyasi points out. This blend of the public and private set a complicated precedent for formal conjugal visit policies, which extended into spousal visitation rights later by the 1950s. Above all else, earning the ability to enjoy personal, private pleasures such as sex became an indicator of power, control, and, ultimately, conformity.
Aside from the obvious racial undertones regarding the introduction of conjugal visits to state facilities, academics such as Columbus B Hopper have suggested that the practice was heteronormative and sexist in nature as well, aimed towards “cut[ting] down on homosexuality” and keeping wives from “wandering” (Hopper, 1962). As discussed in “The Conjugal Visit at Mississippi State Penitentiary,” the primary demographic most likely to benefit from Parchman’s conjugal visits are straight male prisoners. The practice not only prevents spousal infidelity being committed by the non-imprisoned partner, as one inmate states, but also dissuades married men in prison from developing and, potentially, acting upon their homoerotic desires. This implies that conjugal visits, and the act of heterosexual sex, specifically, are able to eliminate any possibility of unfaithfulness, whether from inside or outside the prison walls, therefore protecting the sanctity of a monogamous marital bond between a man and a woman. Thus, privacy—or a lack thereof—can significantly impact a person’s place within a hegemonic framework, even to the point of challenging a person’s individual traits.
In addition to all of the above, the privacy offered by conjugal visits is not always tangible or absolute; many successful encounters actually rely heavily upon unspoken agreements, similar to how the practice was conducted at Parchman Farm. According to Maverick, a convict at California prison and featured guest on the Ear Hustle podcast series, “there was an understanding in the visiting room between, uh, inmates, and the first hour and the last hour of all the visits, the patio was couples only … When you, when you know that everyone else is out there trying to do the same thing, it kind of, uh, takes the tension off. It makes it easier for you to fornicate in public.” (Poor and Woods, 2017). Although this agreement had no legal standing nor any involvement of the officials, Maverick found himself feeling more at ease as everyone around him was committing the same act. What reassured him was not some unshakeable quality of legally-determined privacy, but the private solidarity of attempting public sex. While this does not necessarily justify the act, it certainly paints a clearer picture of the visitation culture at Maverick’s prison.
This calls to mind Califia’s “Public Sex” and the unending conflict between private and “quasi-public sex,” in which he argues against the Sexual Offenses Act of 1967 and its restrictions on the meaning of “public”: anywhere where a third person was likely to be present. In Maverick’s case, every single person engaging in sexual acts on the patio would easily have been prosecuted. Whether it have been his first time with his partner Cathy—in which they simply chose to watch the others in action—or the couple’s second visit, a Toronto bathhouse-type situation would have occurred, in which the law would have had zero regard for consent or intent in either circumstance. What Maverick perceived to have been a “protected, private act” would have been considered a “forfeit [of his] right to privacy” (Califia, 1982). This marks a huge disparity regarding contrasting perceptions of indecency and consensual sexual behavior, perhaps explaining why Maverick’s fellow inmates elected to maintain a level of secrecy regarding patio usage. Privacy, therefore, can be born out of need and fears for personal safety, though its legitimacy may still be questioned in the eyes of the penal code.
Over course of time, conjugal visits were phased out as family visits took precedence, marking a transition that allowed prisoners to enjoy intimacy beyond the brief relief offered by sex. Taking place in an on-site house free from constant surveillance, these visits gave convicts the chance to experience the normalcy and privacy they are unable to have on a day-to-day basis: “many problems were solved during the privacy and closeness of these visits that would have resulted in violent arguments and hard feelings where these visits are not allowed” (Hopper, 1962). The closure attained by family visits has been attributed to an overall improvement in the behavior of convicts, demonstrating how sustained access to privacy is capable of inciting positive change in a person. Though opposers of visitation practices have insisted that “[prisoners] are in prison for a reason … [they] are in there to pay [their] debt, and conjugal visits should not be part of the deal” (Mayyasi, 2015), the right to privacy is perhaps the point of diversion between the necessity of outright punishment and gradual rehabilitation.
What these instances have all shown are the shifting perspectives on sex and privacy, ranging from acting as an incentive, to becoming a mode of healing, to being considered a fundamental right. Yet, sex cannot be viewed as completely public or private, for these two qualities are not mutually exclusive. In Ear Hustle, Maverick later describes a much riskier sexual encounter with Cathy, during which they visited the “boom boom room.” The endeavor involved four couples, each taking turns having sex in a dark room while the remaining three pairs stood guard (Poor and Woods, 2017). And, like John D’Emilio asserts in “My Changing Sex Life,” homosexual men faced many socio-political constraints, including secrecy, liberation, and the public health epidemic of the 1980s. Hence, each sexual encounter carried with it both danger and weight, and the same is reflected in conjugal visits. In essence, sex in correctional facilities inherently pushes the boundaries between the public and private, as well as danger and security, thus reflecting the pervasive nature of such issues within the broader scope of law.
In closing, I can’t help but be influenced by the anecdotes shared by inmates who have been able to experience the benefits of conjugal visits. Maverick recounts his time with Cathy as such: “We just held each other. … Just that one little moment made all the rest of the time that we wasn’t able to be together just melt away. It was like we was a regular couple. We wasn’t in prison. We was just us” (Poor and Woods, 2017). Certainly, an argument can be made that the current visitation policies in place across all other American prisons are sufficient enough to satiate the need to remain in touch. But, this view completely neglects the importance of intimacy and human connection under private, unmediated circumstances. Being incarcerated for any amount of time, whether twenty weeks or twenty years, is undoubtedly a dehumanizing experience. With added consideration for how to best regulate the visitation process, I can’t see why convicts should not be allowed the opportunity to spend time with their loved ones, temporarily forego their label of detainment, and—just for a little while—get to be themselves again.
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