December 16, 2013 9:01:40 AM
JACKSON -- Mississippi prisoners will no longer be allowed to have conjugal visits, starting early next year, Corrections Commissioner Chris Epps said.
Epps told The Clarion-Ledger as of Jan. 31 he will end the program that has been in place more than a century.
Conjugal visits are allowed only for married, minimum-security inmates who haven't violated rules in the previous six months, Epps said. The commissioner said he believes it helps keep families together and reduces sexual assault among prisoners. But he said with the current focus on trimming prisons' expenses, the benefits don't outweigh the costs.
He did not have an estimate of how much money the state would save by ending the program.
"You've got staff time involved, exporting them to the place and supervising personal hygiene and keeping up the infrastructure," Epps said. "Then, even though we provide contraceptive protection, there's no way for me to know, and then you end up with a single spouse out there raising a child."
Epps said that for the last budget year, 155 inmates were allowed conjugal visits, "out of a population of over 22,000." He said prisoners can have visits weekly, except for any fifth Saturdays and Sundays.
Eligible inmates in Mississippi are given one hour for a conjugal visit, in prison rooms that are set up like apartments. The couples are issued soap, condoms, tissue, sheets, pillowcases and towels. The inmate and spouse are searched before and after each visit.
State Rep. Richard Bennett, R-Long Beach, said he's planning to file a bill during the 2014 legislative session to end the conjugal visit program. But, Epps said he can make the change as commissioner, and no law is needed.
Bennett said he was surprised by Epps' announcement to end the practice.
"That's fine, but I still want it outlawed," Bennett said. "I want a law to make sure it can't start up again."
Bennett said he was shocked to learn that babies have been conceived during conjugal visits. He said an elementary school principal in Long Beach told him that in the past, a student was showing off pictures of a new baby brother, and the principal thought that was odd because both of the parents were in prison. The principal told Bennett that the baby was being raised by a grandmother.
The Clarion-Ledger reports that Mississippi is one of only six states to allow conjugal visits, and the practice is forbidden in federal prisons. The practice in Mississippi has never been adopted by law, and a written policy wasn't created until the 1980s.
The new chairman of the House Corrections Committee, Rep. Tommy Taylor is a former prison warden and law officer. He said he has mixed feelings about conjugal visitation, which was available to inmates in the Bolivar Regional Correctional Facility when he was warden there.
"We had heavy guidelines that had to be met," said Taylor, R-Boyle. "I can see the disadvantages, but I can see the advantages of keeping a family together, and it was a management tool.
"I don't know of over two or three incidents, problems, I had in dealing with conjugal visits because we were really strict," Taylor said. "The couple had to go through counseling sessions with a chaplain, not just one session, but many."
Taylor said he has talked with Bennett, and he plans to have the Corrections Committee study the issue.
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