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No More Conjugal Visits For Mississippi Prison Inmates

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With his arm around his wife's shoulders, this prisoner at Mississippi's State Penitentiary at Parchman prepares to spend the afternoon in privacy on Sept. 9, 1959. (AP Photo)
With his arm around his wife's shoulders, this prisoner at Mississippi's State Penitentiary at Parchman prepares to spend the afternoon in privacy on Sept. 9, 1959. (AP Photo)

Serving prison time is going to get a little harder for some inmates in Mississippi, where officials have announced they will no longer allow conjugal visits.

Officials cite budgetary concerns, as well as the possibility of pregnancies as reasons for the change.

Chris Epps, the commissioner of the Mississippi Department of Corrections, is the man behind the ban, which is scheduled to take effect on Feb. 1. Contacted by The Huffington Post on Tuesday, Epps declined to comment on the measure.

In a recent press release, Epps said the benefits of the program do not outweigh the cost.

"There are costs associated with the staff's time, having to escort inmates to and from the visitation facility, supervising personal hygiene and keeping up the infrastructure of the facility," Epps said. "Then, even though we provide contraception, we have no idea how many women are getting pregnant only for the child to be raised by one parent."

The decision is not setting well with inmates or their spouses, according to Jennifer Rogers, a spokeswoman for Mississippi Advocates for Prisoners.

"Epps and others who are involved in this decision have to remember that it is not just the inmates that it affects. It affects the spouse and their families," Rogers told HuffPost.

Rogers said she is all too familiar with the program and its impact on families. Her husband is currently serving out a lengthy sentence at Marshall County Correctional Facility in Holly Springs, Miss.

"We don't want to lose our families," Rogers said. "We want to keep them together. [Conjugal visits] are the one privilege that allows the men to help keep the family unit together – to act as a man and a husband. It gives us a sense of closeness, not just on a sexual intimacy level, but in the ability to have a conversation in private and to hug each other without being looked at like we are doing something wrong. It's a very big deal."

Mississippi is one of only five states, including California, New Mexico, New York and Washington that allow conjugal visits for inmates and their spouses.

According to the Mississippi Department of Corrections website, conjugal visits are only available to legally married inmates who maintain an "acceptable level of good behavior" and are housed in minimum security.

Rogers said that in order for a spouse to have a conjugal visit, the inmate has to meet the requirements set forth by the prison and must fill out a request form prior to the visit.

"As far as the way it happens, our names are called [and] we are escorted to a small conjugal room," Rogers said. "It's got a metal framed bed with a kindergarten style mattress on it. The husbands are given a trash bag with a sheet, wash cloth, soap and a bio degradable bag. We get an hour of time and they give us a five minute warning at the end of the visit by knocking on the door."

Given the amount of effort put into the entire process, Rogers said she finds it difficult to believe that the program is getting the ax as part of a cost-cutting measure.

"There is no way that is accurate," she said. "We have even suggested that if that is the case, [they could] set up a program where there is a fee to pay. We pay everything else."

In his press release, Epps stated that only 155 of the more than 22,000 inmates housed in his prisons were allowed conjugal visits last year.

Rogers also disagrees with Epps' suggestion that women could be getting pregnant during the conjugal visits.

"It's ludicrous," she said. "All you have to do is look around this whole country and there are men and women raising children on their own every day, so that just doesn't hold water."

Epps has not stated what the exact cost of the program is or offered any numbers in regard to possible pregnancies. Nevertheless, he does have the support of Republican state Rep. Richard Bennett.

"Having these visits is not my idea of family bonding," Bennett told FoxNews.com Monday. "People are in prison for a reason. It's like taking a child, putting him in time out and then saying, 'I don't want you to be sad while you're in here so tell me your favorite thing – maybe an Xbox – and I'll get it for you."

However, Rogers and the members of her group are not the only proponents of conjugal visits.

"One of the biggest ironies about this is that it flies in the face of absolutely everything that the data shows," Heather Thompson, a professor of history at Temple University who studies the U.S. prison system told Time magazine on Monday.

The data to which Thompson refers includes a 2012 study by Yale Law School that found participation in conjugal visits were a strong incentive for good behavior.

"Allowing conjugal visitation may also decrease sexual violence within prisons," the study found. "Family members and children who visit and thus able to build and sustain more meaningful relationships with their incarcerated parent or family member, may benefit tremendously."

Rogers agrees with the study's findings.

"The inmates have to maintain good behavior and must be enrolled in a work program or school program," she said. "It gives them an incentive to do right. If that is taken away, it does not give them much of an incentive."

Rogers also claims prison employees have their own concerns about the upcoming change.

"There are several people who work in the facilities who say the same thing," she said. "Those people are concerned for the morale in the facilities, their safety and the well-being of their coworkers."

Mississippi Advocates for Prisoners is holding a rally in Jackson Friday to protest the ban on conjugal visits. The event is scheduled to take place at Smith Park, which is not far from the governor's mansion.

"I think we are going to have a pretty good turnout," Rogers said. "We are hoping to have some members of our legislative body there. We are very hopeful that things will go in our favor."

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