How the Cruel Campaign to End 'Conjugal' Visits Hurts Incarcerated Moms Most
For many incarcerated women, overnight family visits are the only chance to spend substantial time with their children. Though these programs are vital and successful, they're often painted as unnecessary or extravagant by conservative critics.
Illustration by Cathryn Virginia
Bernadette Staubitz has fond memories of playing tag, cooking chili dinners, and having long, emotional conversations into the night with her daughters, now 24 and 19. During their treasured 36-hour visits, a gritty, heavily secured trailer on a prison complex would turn into a family paradise.
Staubitz has served 20 years of a 14- to 29-year sentence for her role in a 1997 homicide. She gave birth to her second daughter while awaiting sentencing in New York City's infamous Rikers Island city jail. In 2005, while serving her sentence an hour north of the city at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility, she was approved to participate in the Family Reunion Program, which allows people in some New York state prisons to spend 36 to 44 hours alone in a trailer with their spouses, children, or immediate family members several times a year.
Their initial extended visit was Staubitz's first chance to spend more than a few hours with her then-8-year-old daughter since she'd been born. "This was the first time that I'd been able to cook for my baby, get her ready for a bath, watch TV, play tag, sleep together," recalled Staubitz, a petite 41-year-old with dark, curly hair and hazel eyes.
Staubitz said she has kept a clean prison record, and was selected to represent offender concerns at monthly meetings with prison administrators. Eligible for conditional release in 2018, she dreams of moving back to New York City and opening a food truck. Without the visits, she said she wouldn't have a strong relationship with her daughters to return to. "There's the phone. There's the postal service. But it's not the same as being able to talk alone, without officers watching," she said. "If it weren't for trailer visits, I wouldn't be the woman I am today."
In 1993, overnight visits were allowed in 17 states, but the programs have since been terminated everywhere but California, New York, and Washington, largely due to concerns over safety, pregnancy, and the belief that they are unnecessary or extravagant. Even where they are allowed, extended visits are rare. In 2016, overnight visits were enjoyed by about 4,900 of the 52,245 people incarcerated in New York, and 692 of the 17,578 in Washington, according to statistics provided by the respective state prison systems. (California did not provide data by press time.) Connecticut recently phased out its program for new participants, although three families continue to visit. The federal prison system does not allow extended visits.
People usually think of overnight prison visitation as "conjugal visits," between incarcerated men and their wives. In reality, less than one-half of extended visits in New York and one-third of visits in Washington are between spouses alone. Many, like Staubitz's, are exclusively with children. In 2007, more than 1.7 million children—about 1 in 43 kids nationwide—had a parent in state or federal prison, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics' most recent report on the subject. For black kids, it was 1 in 15. Through overnight visitation programs, a small percentage of these children get the chance to spend quality time with the parent they desperately long for. And a small percentage of incarcerated parents—who have lost almost all agency, including the ability to be present in their children's lives—get to revive strained relationships and glimpse a better future.
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The effects of extended visitation have not been widely researched, but studies link the visits to better behavior and lower rates of sexual violence behind bars. Other research has shown that people who have extended visits tend to do better post-release as well, demonstrating higher likelihood of employment, more positive parole outcomes, and lower rates of recidivism. A 2012 Yale Law School overview of research found the visits "could be a powerful incentive for good inmate behavior." Staubitz attested to this incentive. "If that's the only way to see your kids? You're not going to mess that up," she said. "You need that."
"For those individuals who will be released at some point, sustaining and supporting pro-social family support systems is one of the most effective methods to encouraging successful reintegration and reducing recidivism," said Washington State Department of Corrections spokesperson Jeremy Barclay in an email.
Those in prison aren't the only ones who suffer from incarceration. The children they leave behind often face financial instability, emotional trauma, stress, and shame. Studies link parental incarceration to a variety of health problems, including "asthma, depression, and anxiety; acting-out behavior; grade retention; stigma; and, in adulthood, an increased likelihood of poor mental or physical health," according to a 2015 report published by the nonprofit research organization Child Trends. According to the Yale overview of research, "children who visit overnight and are thus able to build and sustain more meaningful relationships with their incarcerated parent or family member may benefit tremendously."
"If it weren't for trailer visits, I wouldn't be the woman I am today."
Visits with their children may be particularly crucial for imprisoned women. According to the Sentencing Project, in state prisons, more than 60 percent of women have a child. The number of incarcerated women grew by more than 700 percent from 1980 to 2014, and women face a unique set of challenges behind bars. Nearly half report that they were physically or sexually abused before their incarceration. Once inside, they are less likely than incarcerated men to have a spouse or significant other waiting for them on the outside, visiting, sending packages and money, and providing emotional support. They face degrading conditions like not receiving enough pads to make it through their periods. And since there are fewer women's prisons, women are usually housed farther away from their families, meaning children might travel across the state just to see their mom for one or two supervised hours.
Yet despite the benefits overnight visitation can provide for families and society, the practice is constantly under attack. New York state senators have introduced bills in each of the past four legislative sessions that would terminate the Family Reunion Program. Luckily for Staubitz, none of the bills were voted into law.
"The conjugal visit program is a blatant waste of taxpayer dollars," sponsoring former Senator Michael Nozzolio said in a statement after his bill passed the Senate in 2011. "The rights of our law-abiding citizens must come before those of dangerous convicted felons."
Nozzolio's colleague Senator Gustavo Rivera, who fought each iteration of the bill, looks at it differently. "Most people who are incarcerated are going to go back to their communities," Rivera told Broadly. "That's just the reality. When you look at people who don't recidivate, who don't go back into the system, there's a couple of things that are basic: whether people have a job, whether people have place to live, whether people have a connection with their family."
Private visitation programs haven't always been about maintaining family ties. They were first introduced at a Mississippi labor camp around 1918, when a warden provided weekly visits from prostitutes under the belief that black prisoners would work harder if incentivized by sex. Over time, the programs spread and took on a rehabilitative approach, but racism continued to play a prominent role in the United States prison system. Today, African Americans are incarcerated in state prisons at more than five times the rate of whites. As a result, the kids who disproportionately suffer from incarceration are rural, poor, and black.
Considering this racist history, perhaps it's no surprise that extended visitation, which helps already disadvantaged children and their parents, is seen as extravagant or unnecessary by state and prison officials. The programs began disappearing during the prison boom of the 1980s and 90s, when politicians and policymakers abandoned rehabilitation programs and shifted to a focus on punishment. In 2014, then-Mississippi Corrections Commissioner Chris Epps terminated his state's program due to cost, adding that "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." New Mexico terminated its extended visitation program the same year, which department spokeswoman Alex Tomlin said was due to the risk of pregnancies, STDS, and smuggled contraband, as well as a cost of about $120,000 a year.
Contraband, escape plans, cost, and pregnancies are commonly cited concerns, but advocates argue they do not pose real threats.
"Anytime anybody uses those reasons, then I want to know what their data is for the last five years," said Ann Adalist-Estrin, director of the National Resource Center on Children and Families of the Incarcerated at Rutgers University. "How many escapes have you had because of extended visits? How many issues of contraband? I think we need to be respectful that that's what they are arguing, but then say, 'OK, so how widespread of a problem was it that it led you to change the policy?'"
Canada's extensive Private Family Visiting program, which allows prisoners to visit with family and common law partners for 72 hours every two months, has not led to significant contraband or escape issues. During the thousands of yearly visits, prison staff identify unusual incidents by searching with ion scanners and detector dogs, conducting regular check-ins throughout visits, and holding follow-up interviews, according to spokeswoman Esther Mailhot. She said the program aims to "encourage inmates to develop and maintain family and community ties that will assist them in becoming law-abiding citizens."
Participants seem to follow the rules in New York as well. During the approximately 28 extended visits at Collins Correctional Facility per month in 2012, there was just one reported "unusual incident." According to the Correctional Association, a nonprofit with authority to investigate New York prisons, these high rates of rule-following indicate "how important the program is to people and how participants utilize the program in an appropriate manner."
Prisoner advocates say the programs are not cost-prohibitive either. Washington spent about $86,000 in 2016 to provide overnight visits for 692 prisoners and their families. The amount came from from a special fund intended to reduce idleness and encourage development of family and community ties.
And the hand-wringing about babies being born with an incarcerated parent is part of a larger trend of policing prisoners' right to procreate. From 2006 to 2010, nearly 150 women incarcerated in California state prisons were sterilized without required state approvals. And this May, a Tennessee county began giving credit towards jail time in exchange for a vasectomy or birth control implant.
"When you look at people who don't recidivate, who don't go back into the system, there's a couple of things that are basic: whether people have a job, whether people have place to live, whether people have a connection with their family."
"I don't think [family visitation programs are] fair to the children conceived and to the taxpayers," Mississippi State Rep. Richard Bennett told the New York Times before his state terminated extended visitation for both families and spouses in 2014. "You are in prison for a reason. You are in there to pay your debt, and conjugal visits should not be part of the deal."
People do not always say it so explicitly, but Rep. Bennett's belief that incarcerated people do not deserve to interact with loved ones is far from rare. In many prisons across the country, even regular, supervised visits are difficult or impossible for families. Most prisoners and their families are from urban areas, yet prisons are located in remote towns many miles away. Children travel an average of 100 miles to visit their incarcerated fathers and 160 miles to visit their mothers—if their caretakers have time off and access to a car. A nonprofit provided Staubitz's daughters with free rides to the prison from their homes in Queens and Long Island, but programs like this are rare. Once visitors arrive, they may be subjected to long waits outside in the extreme heat or cold, confusing rules and dress codes, rude treatment, pat-downs and security checks, and lack of privacy.
And visitation is always at risk of being scaled back. In this year's budget plan, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo proposed decreasing the number of weekly visiting days in maximum-security facilities from seven to three. Some prisons and jails across the country have replaced in-person visitation with video calls. In one particularly extreme instance, the Mississippi Department of Corrections announced last August that starting the following day, only members of a prisoner's immediate family would be allowed to visit. Specifically banned were "all friends, pastors, girlfriends, fiancés, cousins, nephews, nieces, aunts, uncles, and in-laws."
"I couldn't breathe," Jennifer Davis, an advocate whose then-fiancé (they have since married) is incarcerated in Mississippi, recalled when she heard the news. "My heart stopped."
"This was the first time that I'd been able to cook for my baby, get her ready for a bath, watch TV, play tag, sleep together."
The department halted implementation of the new rule after the ACLU of Mississippi argued it was unconstitutional. But even without the rule, family members like Davis can go months without being allowed to visit. Blake Feldman of the ACLU of Mississippi said the state frequently locks down entire sections of prisons, halting all visitation and phone calls for weeks or months. He gets desperate phone calls at least twice a week from family members cut off from their incarcerated loved ones.
Not only does this hurt families, but it's "actually very dangerous," said Feldman. "To tell someone—when what they hold onto to emotionally and mentally survive incarceration is visiting with family—to tell them that if their neighbors do something wrong that the prison is going to take that away from them? You don't need a bunch of desperate incarcerated people to self-police."
In many states, even phone calls with incarcerated loved ones can be cost-prohibitive. To accept calls, families must set up accounts with third-party companies that charge by the minute. In 2015, the Federal Communications Commission capped this cost at 11 cents a minute for in-state calls from prisons, and 14 to 22 cents for calls from jails. In February 2017, under its Trump-appointed chair, the commission announced it will no longer enforce the price cap.
Strict rules, physical barriers, and cost make it nearly impossible for some incarcerated people to interact with their families. But programs like extended visitation really can make a difference in lives. Staubitz and her daughters are living proof.
She said her older daughter holds two jobs, including coaching a women's wrestling team at a community college, and her younger daughter works at a restaurant and is in her second year of college. They both live out of state and haven't had an extended visit in years, but are planning one this summer. "Both of my daughters have grown up to be beautiful, intelligent, and great little women, even against very difficult odds," she said. "I am so very proud of them. Words could never define what they mean to me."
She credits their extended visits with building the relationships they have today. "We played Monopoly, watched TV, and just talked like we'd never done before," said Staubitz. The girls brought in bags of groceries and Staubitz cooked gigantic meals. Sometimes they joined the families staying in the other three trailers for a picnic. She said the visits felt "like you leave the sewer (your cell block) and enter paradise."
"I remember watching her sleep and feeling so happy—so profoundly joyful to be a mom," she recalled of her first visit with her younger daughter. "Of course, I also felt like a failure underneath it all for being in prison, and not with my daughters. But, in the span of those two days and two nights, I'd put prison on the back burner and be the best mom I could be."