Currently, only six U.S. states allow prison conjugal visits within their prison systems: California, Connecticut, Mississippi, New Mexico, New York and Washington. Originally, prison conjugal visits were used as an incentive to motivate working prisoners to be more productive. They were scheduled visits that allowed the prison inmate to spend one-on-one time with his or her legal spouse. Prisoners were lured by the idea of having the opportunity to have sexual contact with their spouses. Today, the main purpose of these visits is to preserve the family unit. That is why they are now called Extended Family Visits. These visits can include the legal spouse, but are also open to other immediate family members, including the inmate's children.
The states that allow Extended Family Visits believe that preserving the bond of the family unit makes the chances of the inmates rehabilitation greater. It is also believed that it helps to lessen the chances of them reverting back to a life of crime and returning to prison after release. Protecting the family bond does not just benefit the inmate, it is also important to the spouse, children and other immediate family members. It allows them the chance to interact privately with each other, just as any other family does. Together, they can talk, laugh, watch television, read, play games, cook and eat in an atmosphere that resembles that of an actual home or hotel suite.
The visits take place on prison grounds in apartment-style homes, with one or more bedrooms. They are fully furnished and equipped with appliances and cooking and eating utensils. Usually, up to three visitors are allowed at a time. They are allowed to bring approved food items to cook together as a family. Depending on the state's policy, these visits can be anywhere from a few hours to 72 hours, and usually take place over the weekend.
One unified policy that all six states agree on is that Extended Family Visits are “not a right, but a privilege.” Prisoners must earn the opportunity to participate in this program. They must be low-to-medium security level prisoners, with no history of disciplinary problems within the prison system. They cannot be incarcerated for violent offenses or have a history of child abuse or domestic violence. Prisoners being housed in maximum security level prisons are not eligible, even if they meet all other eligibility requirements. They must undergo testing for and be free of HIV and all STDs.
Visitors must also meet certain criteria. They must be approved by the state prison system for visits with the inmate. This requires passing an extensive criminal background check. For spouses, proof must be provided that a legal marriage exists. All other immediate family members must provide proof of their immediate relationship to the prisoner. While on prison grounds, visitors must follow all state prison visitor rules and regulations, including, but not limited to, dress codes. Prison visitors must undergo a full body search whenever they enter or leave the prison for Extended Family Visits.
Supporters of Extended Family Visits truly believe that they are instrumental to keeping families together and strong. Married couples get personal, quality time together. Parents and siblings get a chance to spend time with their loved ones. Incarcerated parents get full parental contact with their children. These privileged prison families get the opportunity to interact with each other like a “normal” family, if only for one weekend.
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