Conjugal Visits and Prison History

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Debbie says:

I’ve been listening to Ear Hustle, a podcast recorded from San Quentin by an inmate and a volunteer.  Last August, they aired an episode called “The Boom-Boom Room,” about conjugal visits. Like most Ear Hustle episodes, this one stayed with me.

So I took extra note of Elizabeth Greenwood’s recent post, “The Evolution of the Conjugal Visit.” And no matter how much I learn to expect racist overtones to every corner of American history, Greenwood managed to surprise me with this one.

The piece starts as you would expect, with a tale of a particular inmate, in this case Ivié De Molina, serving 25 years to life in Bedford Hills, New York. Before she married a man she met as a penpal, de Molina had a “conjugal” visit with her mother:

In [California, New York, Connecticut and Washington, the four states that allow conjugal visits]. in these states, anyone who is immediate family or legally married can spend a few nights with their loved one in a mobile home for a few days of normalcy. Ivié even spent time in a trailer with her mother before she passed a few years ago. “I would color and style her hair and do her makeup,” she said. “The time was so precious.”

Time styling your mother’s hair. Time spent actually relating to someone you love, someone you might see every day or every week if you weren’t incarcerated. It doesn’t sound like something that grew out of Mississippi’s beliefs about Black men …

It started in the early 1900s as an incentive at the Mississippi State Prison, also known as Parchman. Sex workers were used as an incentive for work, a privilege was limited to African-American inmates in the racially segregated prison due to racist beliefs about their insatiable sexual appetites. Scholar Columbus B. Hopper wrote the definitive history of Parchman, and his work is cited throughout the literature on conjugal visits:

Hopper says: [Sex workers] arrived every Sunday afternoon on a flatbed truck driven by a pimp as lordly as any who ride city streets in pink Cadillacs. The women did a thriving business at the individual camps which were scattered over the 22,000 acres of prison land. According to a song written by an inmate of the era, the price of a prostitute’s service was 50 cents, not a small amount during the Great Depression when many people worked a 12-hour day for a dollar.

So much harm has been done by the specific stereotype of Black men’s sexuality, a standard excuse for lynchings and the “reason” for Emmett Till’s murder. This story is only rare because something more or less good morphed out of this lie.

From these racist beginnings, Greenwood goes on to track the legal history of conjugal visits (determined by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1974 not to be a constitutional right). She touches on international laws on the subject (a legal right in India, a common practice in Latin America), and cites statistics about the beneficial results of intimate visits in reducing both prison sexual assaults and also recidivism.

I’m not the least bit surprised about the value of conjugal visits. It’s a simple syllogism.

1) Prisoners are human beings.

2) Human beings don’t just need food, water, shelter, and clothing. We also need touch, privacy, and kindness.

3) Prisoners need touch, privacy, and kindness.

(Am I thinking about immigrant children and parents at the border? I didn’t know I was when I started this post, but of course I am. What decent human being isn’t?)