PERRY/Prison sex and the Bible
Wednesday, January 29, 2014 12:00 AM
Representative Richard Bennett (R-Long Beach) introduced legislation to ban conjugal visits for prisoners in the custody of the Department of Corrections at Mississippi correctional facilities. Bennett believes these visits can result in the conception of children that then - until the sentence of the prisoner is complete - would be raised in a single parent household. He believes this is a burden on the state and taxpayers.
Mississippi is one of only five states that still allow inmates an opportunity of intimacy with their spouse. Prisoners must be married, healthy (no sexually transmitted diseases) and have a record of good behavior. Only minimum level prisoners are eligible - those without immediate security supervision.
Whether or not Bennett's legislation passes, Department of Corrections Commissioner Chris Epps has changed internal policy to end conjugal visits beginning February 1. Epps cited costs associated with escorting inmates to the visitation facility and the creation of children into a one-parent home as reasons.
The policy of conjugal visits began in Mississippi around 1918, before spreading to the rest of the county, according to Temple University history professor Heather Thompson. She explained on NPR's "Tell Me More" news program, "After the Civil War when - many laws changed so that there was a much higher incarceration rate of African-Americans, primarily to staff and to labor the former plantations, there was a major increase of black labor in Mississippi penitentiaries, such as Parchman Farm. And unfortunately, the origins of this are quite insidious, which is that there was a belief at the time that - on part of white Mississippians - that African-Americans had stronger sexual desires than whites and that having sex provided for them would make them work harder as an incentive.... it was quite explicit also that this is what whites thought and that their bottom line desire was to get as much productivity as they could....Mississippi in the '30s extends this to white prisoners, and in 1972 extends it to women. And eventually, the various states that have it - the idea is to really keep families together."
She makes an argument that conjugal visits are a smart criminal justice policy. She said, "there's been several studies - American Journal of Criminal Justice has a pretty important study in 2012. Yale Law School had a pretty important study in 2012, which makes it clear that [conjugal visits] are both incentives for good behavior, but also that it's really good for reducing violence in the prison. But there's also ancillary studies that show that people who connected with their family tend to do much better, tend to recidivate less, that is to go back to prison again, less frequently."
The arguments on each side seem clear.
Conjugal visits should be prohibited because prisoners are being punished and taxpayers should not foot the bill for costs associated with a prisoner having sex with their spouse, or if that spouse needs state support for that child while the other parent is incarcerated.
Conjugal visits should be allowed because it improves prisoner moral which helps guards and decreases costs, and by strengthening the family bonds reduces the likelihood the prisoner will become a repeat offender.
But there is another issue to consider as well: the importance of sex within a marriage from a religious perspective.
A Gallup study reported Mississippi as the most religious state with 58 percent of residents considering themselves "very religious." A study by John Green at the University of Akron notes more than 65 percent of religious people in Mississippi are protestant. Anyone reading the Song of Solomon knows the Bible is not silent on sex. It values sex as a marriage act that produces pleasure, promotes intimacy between spouses and creates children. Culturally, the role of sex in marriage is such that an absence of it has, in many jurisdictions, been grounds for divorce.
Don't get me wrong, sex is not a religious sacrament. Denying prisoners the opportunity to have sex with their spouse is not limiting their religious beliefs or prohibiting the free exercise of their doctrines. But a person's relationship with God does not change because they break the law and go to prison. Their marriage does not become less sacred in the eyes of God.
Some believe the only proper role of sex is procreation. Some believe religious beliefs should not impact public policy. But in Mississippi, we have a state of very religious people that impacts our culture and our laws.
Prohibiting conjugal visits not only punishes the prisoner who has committed and been convicted of a crime, it also punishes the spouse and prevents a religiously valued and culturally respected component of their family life.
I'm not convinced yet by either side in the debate, but there is more to discuss than just taxpayers costs for prisoners' sex.
Brian Perry is a columnist for the Madison County Journal and a partner with Capstone Public Affairs, LLC. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or @CapstonePerry on Twitter.