Staying in touch with the family

IN THE early 1900s Mississippi’s prisons allowed private female visitors—but only for African-American convicts. This was in the racist belief that it would calm their supposedly fiery passions. Thinking about conjugal visits has moved on a bit: much of the world offers them. Some researchers, prisons and inmates say they help rehabilitation. But in America and Britain policymakers look on them with distaste.

In September Qatar’s Central Prison unveiled villas for spouses and children to visit married inmates. Turkish prisons introduced them for the first time earlier this year. Authorities in Costa Rica, Israel and Mexico have in recent years allowed them for homosexual inmates. Even Saudi Arabia and Iran have long allowed them for married prisoners. And many Latin American countries allow private visits for unmarried inmates too.

But only five American states allow them, and in Britain they are banned. State officials in Ohio feared that they would lead to more disease and pregnancies (which touches on another delicate issue: condoms in prisons). Dr Chris Hensley, a criminologist who has advised American prisons, says even the phrase “conjugal visit” has a “deviant connotation”. Officials laugh when he mentions it. Cindy Struckman-Johnson, of America’s National Prison Rape Elimination Commission, says it shunned the issue in its researches for fear of stirring up controversy. Paul Nuttall, a British member of the European Parliament, decried a study of the issue as wasteful, complaining that prisons were already like “holiday camps” when they should be a punishment.

Yet evidence does suggest that conjugal visits not only reduce prison violence but also reduce recidivism by preserving family ties. In Canada inmates are allowed every two months to spend up to 72 hours in a flat with their spouses, partners, children, parents or in-laws. “We get to cook together, play cards and bingo, and be a family…The children get to know their father,” remarks a female relative of an offender in Ontario. The visits, says an inmate, “let us know that someone still cares about us”.

Canada’s Correctional Service has advised the Trinidadian government on creating a similar programme. Perhaps America and Britain, the leading incarcerators in the world and western Europe respectively, will one day be open to similar counsel.