Prisons control incarcerated people's relationships and access to intimacy

Pop culture is rife with depictions of how incarceration affects intimate bonds between family members and lovers, but it often fails to fully reckon with the burdens, stigmas, and judgments those relationships face. While advocates have pushed for programs that would allow incarcerated people to have more opportunities for extended, private visits, prison policies have made extended family visits—known also as family reunion programs or more colloquially “conjugal visits”—increasingly unavailable to incarcerated people across the country. 

In 1995, 17 states offered some form of extended visitation programs, but today, there are only three that are fully operational: Washington, New York, and California. Family reunion programs remain a constant target of legislation drafted by Republican lawmakers. In New York, there have been seven legislative attempts to eliminate these programs since 2011. In a bill drafted for the 2021-2022 New York state legislative session, bill co-sponsors cite an $800,000 allocation made in the State’s 2010 budget for “conjugal visit trailers at Five Points Correctional Facility.” Such funding, the legislators write, rewards New York’s “most hardened criminals.” 

“During these difficult economic times, we must critically examine every taxpayer dollar that New York State spends in order to find areas for potential savings,” the bill’s sponsor writes. “The Family Reunion Program is a costly and unnecessary prisoner luxury that New York can no longer afford in this difficult budget year.”

Opponents of these programs often frame their objections to extended visitation programs in terms of cost, though families and loved ones of incarcerated people often say they would pay additional fees to help defray program costs and preserve access to visits. In Washington state, extended visits are funded by phone call fees, commissary payments, and a $10 per night fee paid by visiting family members. 

But “costs” aren’t the only thing the carceral system wants to control. When the Mississippi Department of Corrections [MDC] terminated the state’s program in 2014, the press release didn’t just cite “financial cost” as the main reason—the release noted that “Even though [MDC provides] contraception, we have no idea how many women are getting pregnant only for the child to be raised by one parent.” In other words, eliminating extended family visitation wasn’t just about controlling costs, it was also about controlling people’s reproduction. 

Most recently, New York State Senator Pamela Helming introduced SB 2938 in the 2023-2024 legislative session to push for permanent termination of New York State’s Department of Corrections and Community Supervision’s (NYDOCCS) Family Reunion Program. The bill aims to “prohibit the establishment of any program designed to provide selected inmates and their families the opportunity to privately meet for an extended period of time.”

Helming and other lawmakers who oppose the Family Reunion Program deem extended visits as a “luxury” for people they deem unworthy of the expense. Alliance of Families for Justice (AFJ) founder Soffiyah Elijah views them as a “lifeline,” offering 36 uninterrupted hours for children, spouses, and other family members to spend together. 

“The people who are drafting legislation to eliminate things like the Family Reunion Program are genuinely hardcore law and order ‘just want to keep on beating people when they’re down’ kind of folks,” Elijah said. “It’s not tied to any logical security reason at all.”

“It’s hard to know who you can turn to for support”

Much of American culture promotes the idea that love conquers all, but the reality is far more complicated for those whose lives are shaped by incarceration. Many romantic relationships experience complicated periods of separation, but how prison environments affect the emotional ties between loved ones are unique.

In a 2019 study, Dr. Bonnie McCracken Nickels explored the experiences of women who are in relationships with an incarcerated partner. The study focused on uncovering the primary ways these women maintain connection with their partners and the ongoing barriers that thwart their efforts. 

Some of their methods may be familiar: using physical items such as pictures or gifts to feel a sense of closeness to their partner, engaging in positive thinking, offering assurances such as reiterating one’s commitment to the relationship, discussing future plans, and integrating the incarcerated partner into their everyday life either by sharing the goings on of each person’s day or timing phone calls so that they coincide with special events like family dinners or a child’s school recital.

Other ways of staying connected were more nuanced and reflected specific barriers stemming from incarceration. For instance, Nickels notes that when it comes to planning for the future, “the un-incarcerated women saw discussion of future plans as dependent upon prison sentence length. When an incarcerated partner had an extended or life sentence, the un-incarcerated women tended to focus their discussions on current behavioral efforts of their incarcerated partners so that they could earn more visitation privileges and/or release from segregation in the future.”

Families who have incarcerated loved ones live with a lot of stigma and shame and they generally don’t tell anybody that they have someone in that circumstance.

Soffiyah Elijah

Similarly, participants in the study noted that purposefully concealing or avoiding certain topics was something that they had to be more mindful of doing at times. 

“If it is something he can help with I tell him,” one respondent wrote. “If it’s a financial struggle or something he cannot help with and would lead him to further depression and disappointment, I keep it to myself.” 

Similarly, while couples in other types of long-distance relationships, like military deployment, often rely upon their social network to vent or seek comfort, that option was less common for people with an incarcerated significant other because of the stigma attached to incarceration. 

“People judge,” one respondent wrote. “It’s hard to know who you can turn to for support.”   

In addition to stigma, these women also discussed having to wrestle with loneliness, a lack of communication due to the cost of phone calls, and the inability to engage in small talk throughout the day–small privileges that can easily be taken for granted by those whose lives are unencumbered by the carceral system. Similarly, women cited emotional disconnect on both ends as a blockage that was difficult to overcome. On their side, there can be a pressure to always be positive during phone calls and in letters, feeling as if their problems are incomparable to the stressors of prison life.

Elijah sees firsthand how the stigma of incarceration can silence people who have a loved one inside. 

“Families who have incarcerated loved ones live with a lot of stigma and shame and they generally don’t tell anybody that they have someone in that circumstance,” Elijah said in an interview with Prism. 

Founded in 2016, AFJ’s mission is to support, empower, and mobilize families who have an incarcerated loved one or have been impacted by the criminal legal system, focusing on those detained in New York State. The organization has three arms of work: free legal support for families, advocacy and organizing, and family support, which includes weekly empowerment circles and community organizing meetings. These empowerment circles can be spaces where members feel safe to share their thoughts, stories, and struggles. 

“You don’t have to hide if you’re having a bad hair day because the visit didn’t go well or because you weren’t able to make the visit, or if you’re [deciding] can I afford to take this visit [because] my kid needs new sneakers?” Elijah said. “It’s a place where you can talk about some of those stressors that you might not be able to talk about with your loved one because you don’t want them to know how hard it is on the outside for you.”

Elijah says that people from outside New York sometimes call into these weekly meetings because they don’t have similar spaces in their state. When there is a space to release and discuss stress,  there is also an opportunity to brainstorm with the group to identify solutions to the most pressing problems plaguing these family members and their loved ones inside. 

Using access to intimacy as a means of control

While initially called “conjugal visits,” a name which simply denotes that it is “related to marriage,” the term has garnered a sexualized and salacious connotation that continues to tightly link the concept to its anti-Black origins. 

Conjugal visitation dates back to the early 1900s on Parchman Farm, now known as the Mississippi State Penitentiary. Parchman was and continues to be among the prisons that most clearly preserve the enduring ties between chattel slavery and the carceral system. Convict leasing, made possible by a clause within the 13th amendment that preserved slavery through imprisonment, meant that prisons like Parcham could be used to target Black Americans and utilize incarcerated workers to yield profit for the state while also preserving the racist hierarchy that existed during the antebellum era. 

At Parchman, corrections officers authorized the first documented conjugal visits, arranging for local sex workers to enter the prison to incentivize incarcerated men to work harder in the prison cotton fields. Rooted in stereotypes about race and hypersexuality, these visits were initially only offered to Black Parchman prisoners. 

By the 1940s, conjugal visits were extended to white male prisoners. In the 1970s, female prisoners were permitted visits from their spouses as well. Conjugal visitation spread to other state corrections systems across the country, with some programs only available to spouses and others allowing additional family members. Some programs were a few hours long, while others offered visits that spanned an entire weekend. For the latter, incarcerated people and their visiting loved ones could stay in trailers located outside the prison but within the facilities’ gates, outfitted to look like small one or two-bedroom apartments in an attempt to replicate a more domestic and comfortable feeling. 

Restrictions around who can access this treasured alone time are another form of control where the system—not incarcerated people and their loved ones—determines which relationships are worth maintaining.

There are still elements of extended visitation programs that harken back to the history of conjugal visits and their original use as a tool for control and discipline. For instance, the carceral system still employs tight restrictions on displays of affection during in-person visits. Earlier in the pandemic, when officials paused New York’s Family Reunion Program but in-person visits were still allowed, incarcerated loved ones could be written up for disciplinary tickets if caught kissing a visiting loved one.    

In other states, corrections officials have crafted policies dictating how long an embrace or a kiss can last or the height of tables at visiting rooms, purposefully choosing short tables that would prevent couples from touching or holding hands outside of a corrections officer’s line of sight. Further, restrictions around who can access this treasured alone time are another form of control where the system—not incarcerated people and their loved ones—determines which relationships are worth maintaining. Before Connecticut’s extended visitation program was halted, only incarcerated parents were eligible and children had to be present alongside other family members. This was beneficial for parent-child relationships but also inherently undervalued the need for intimate time amongst romantic partners. 

Additionally, incarcerated people must exercise “good behavior” being sure not to incur any disciplinary infractions to maintain eligibility in the program. In New York, incarcerated people wishing to take part in the extended visit programs must exhibit a “pattern of good institutional adjustment” and not incur any major, chronic, severe, or excessive disciplinary infractions that would lead to the loss of certain privileges over the time that their visit is scheduled to take place. Disciplinary conduct that could revoke access to extended visitation could range from fighting and bribing to refusing to obey the orders of DOCCS personnel “promptly and without argument.”

But research shows that visitation yields long-term positive outcomes beyond what a system rooted in racist stereotypes views as “good behavior.” Incarcerated people who are visited more frequently have fewer symptoms of depression. For married people inside, increased frequency of visits from their spouses can reduce the possibility of recidivism by 30% according to research conducted in 2008.    

Despite such benefits, recent challenges continue to undermine the success of this programming and threaten the future of extended visitation altogether. In New York State, families and loved ones of incarcerated people and advocates from groups such as AFJ waged a campaign to reinstate the Family Reunion Program after it was halted at the onset of the pandemic in 2020, along with the processing of all marriage licenses in the state’s prisons. 

“We pushed, we cajoled, we embarrassed, we took out ads in the local newspaper, we went on the radio, we sent postcards to then Governor Cuomo about it and basically annoyed the heck out of everybody we could get to pay attention until we got both of those things restored,” said Elijah. 

In 2021, the program resumed, though not without a vaccination requirement for families who wish to take part—a double standard given that officers working within these same facilities are no longer required to be vaccinated. DOCCS’ failure to ensure that people incarcerated in its facilities consistently have access to PPE since the earliest days of the pandemic further underscores that the vaccine mandate for families is merely an attempt to create additional obstacles. 

Elijah says that she’s cautiously optimistic that the program will remain safe against legislative threats because of how valuable it is to loved ones on the outside and inside and its efficacy in incentivizing good behavior.

“There’s no reason that they should want to get rid of good behavior incentives,” said Elijah. “I think we’re on firm footing to push back against any effort to eliminate the Family Reunion Program, but I say that cautiously.” 

A holistic view of the financial, physical, and emotional costs of intimacy while incarcerated 

Campaigns or legislative efforts related to incarcerated people and their loved ones often focus on the financial toll placed on families and friends. The cost of sharing phone calls, sending care packages, traveling long distances for visits, or sending funds for commissary items are rightfully highlighted and contrasted with the abysmally low wages that people inside are paid for their labor. Families are often placed in debt and tasked with deciding whether to pay for necessary expenses or maintain contact with their loved ones inside. For instance, a recent change to the DOCCS package policy in New York is causing families new financial anxieties. In April 2022, Gov. Kathy Hochul issued a new policy only allowing care packages to be sent to state prisons via online vendors. Previously, loved ones could bring packages in during their in-person visits. 

Not only do online vendors mean that families must pay shipping costs to send packages, but advocates say the new policy also limits what goods make it inside. For example, care packages have been one of the few avenues by which incarcerated loved ones can access fresh fruits and vegetables. Pivoting towards online vendors lengthens the journey from farm to table, meaning that most of these goods will spoil en route. Groups like AFJ have begun to fight back against the policy, putting out ads and sending thousands of postcards and emails to the governor’s office. 

The impact of incarceration on families has just not been part of the narrative [and] mass incarceration not only destroys the people who are behind bars, but it [also] destroys the people on the outside and the communities they come from.

Soffiyah Elijah

Advocates are also drawing attention to the collateral harm the policy does to the health of people inside by further restricting their diets and their emotional and mental well-being. For instance, when care packages are filtered through third-party vendors, it’s more difficult for loved ones to personalize them by including a special snack or favorite type of produce that a person inside loves and anticipates.

Focusing outreach on finances and health can help people understand the ripple effects of incarceration and lead to successful campaigns that will have an immediate, urgent impact on the lives of incarcerated people and their families. But it can also obscure the intimate lives and needs of those on the inside and the people they love on the outside. For advocates like Elijah, shifting narratives about incarceration to a more holistic view may be the best salve to the harm caused by the carceral system. 

“The impact of incarceration on families has just not been part of the narrative [and] mass incarceration not only destroys the people who are behind bars, but it [also] destroys the people on the outside and the communities they come from,” said Elijah. “That holistic view of what [incarceration is] doing is essential to develop a holistic strategy for undoing that harm.”

Tamar Sarai is a features staff reporter at Prism. Follow her on Twitter @bytamarsarai.