Editor's note: This story was co-written by inside-outside couple Steve Higginbotham and Jordana Rosenfeld, weaving together Jordana's personal experience and reporting with letters from Steve. Together, they examine popular myths around conjugal visits, their decreasing availability, and the punitive logic behind the state's policing of sex and intimacy that stifles relationships like theirs. Jordana's words appear below in the orange boxes on the right; Steve's are in the purple on the left.
The other day, when I told my grandmother I was researching the history of conjugal visits for an essay, she said, "Oh, like in my stories?"
You can't talk about conjugal visits without talking about television, because television is pretty much the only place where conjugal visits still exist. A wide variety of TV shows either joke about or dramatize conjugal visits, from popular sitcoms that have little to nothing to do with prison life, like The Simpsons, Family Guy, and Seinfeld, to prestige dramas like Prison Break and Oz that purport to offer "gritty" and "realistic" prison tales. Conjugals loom large in public imagination about life in prison, which leaves people under the unfortunate impression that they are in any kind of way widespread or accessible.
Their availability has been in steady decline for more than 25 years. The mid-to-late 1990s are the often-cited high point of conjugal visits, with 17 states offering some kind of program. (Federal and maximum security prisons do not allow conjugals.) This means that at their most widespread, conjugal visits were only ever permitted in one-third of all states.
There are only four U.S. states that currently allow conjugal visits, often called "extended" or "family" visits: California, Connecticut, New York, and Washington. Some people say Connecticut's program doesn't count though, when it comes to conjugals—and the Connecticut Department of Corrections agrees. Their family visit program is explicitly intended for the benefit of children and requires that the incarcerated person receiving visitors be a parent. Their child must attend.
My boyfriend has been in prison for 28 years. He was 18 during the high point of conjugal visit programs. That's when the state of Missouri decided to lock him up for the rest of his natural life, effectively sentencing him to a lifetime of deep loneliness and sexual repression, not just because Missouri doesn't offer conjugal visits, but because when you are incarcerated, your body belongs to the state in every possible way—from your labor to your sex life.
Every prison riot ever could have been prevented with some properly organized fucking.
That's my boyfriend, Steve.
Not being able to physically express love—or even lust—builds frustration that boils over in unintended ways.
Intimacy is policed rigidly in prison, and it has certainly worsened over the years. For most people with incarcerated lovers, intimacy happens not on a conjugal visit, but in the visiting room. Visits now may start and end with a brief embrace and chaste kiss. Open mouth kissing has been outlawed. These rules are enforced with terminated visits and even removing a person from the visiting list for a year or more.
Steve and I have kissed a total of six times.
We have also hugged six times, if you don't count us posing with his arm over my shoulder three times for pictures. The kisses were so brief that I'm not sure I remember what they felt like. He told me later on the phone that he knew he had to be the one to pull away from the kiss before we gave the COs in the bubble reason to intervene because I wouldn't. He knew this, somehow, before he ever kissed me. He was right.
When I last visited him in Jefferson City Correctional Center, Steve told me about a real conjugal visit from '90s Missouri.
Years ago, people used to mess around in the visiting room at Potosi [Correctional Center]. Everyone knew to keep their sensitive visitors away from a certain area, because there was frequent sex behind a vending machine. I can neither confirm nor deny that cops were paid to turn a blind eye to it. I met a guy recently in my wing at JCCC who said he had heard of me, and that maybe I knew his father. I did know his father. I didn't have the heart to tell him that I probably saw his conception behind a Coke machine back in 1995.
The increasing restriction of physical touch—the expanded video surveillance of visiting spaces, the use of solitary confinement for the smallest infractions, and the withering of both in-person and conjugal visit programs—reflects the punitive logic that consensual human touch is a privilege that incarcerated people do not deserve.
This is an evil proposition, and it's one that is at the core of the ongoing dehumanization of millions of people in U.S. prisons, and the millions of people like me who love them.
One woman with an incarcerated partner put it to researchers this way: "The prison system appears to be set up to break families up." And she's right. For the duration of his incarceration, I will never be closer to Steve than the state of Missouri is. I'm reminded during each of our timed kisses: His primary partner is the state.
The most difficult part for me about a romantic relationship with a free woman is that I feel selfish. A lot of self-loathing thoughts creep in. I want the best for her and often question if I am that "best." However, an added benefit is that we can truly take things slowly and explore each other in ways that two free people don't often experience nowadays. We write emails daily. And these are important. We vent. And listen. We continue to build, whereas many free people stop building at consummation.
But these are the realities rarely captured in media portrayals of romantic relationships between free world and incarcerated partners. Conjugals on TV are so disconnected from what it's actually like to be in a romantic relationship with an incarcerated person: Trying to schedule my life around precious 15 minute phone calls, paying 25 cents to send emails monitored by correctional officers, finding ways to symbolically include Steve in my life, like leaving open the seat next to me at the movies. Instead, television shows depict implausible scenarios of nefarious rendezvous that often parrot law enforcement lies. When they do so, they undermine the public's ability to conceptualize that love and commitment fuel relationships like ours.
Although contraband typically enters prisons through staff, not visitors, television shows often present conjugal visits as a cover for smuggling, like in the earliest TV plot I could find involving a conjugal visit, from a 1986 Miami Vice episode. After his girlfriend is killed, Tubbs gets depressed enough to agree to go undercover at a state prison to bust some guards selling cocaine. In his briefing on the issue, Tubbs asks how the drugs are getting into the prison. Conjugal visits and family visits are the first two methods named by the prison commissioner, never mind that I have yet to find any evidence that Florida ever allowed those kinds of visits.
Often, the excuse for policing visits so strictly is that drugs can be exchanged. But I know that lie is used for every type of control in prison. For over a year we had NO CONTACT visits because of the pandemic. During that time, dozens of inmates [at my facility] still overdosed and had drug-related episodes that caused them to need medical attention. Those drugs certainly didn't arrive through visits. They strip search and X-ray me going to and from visits anyway.
Everything in prison now is on camera. When a drug overdose occurs, the investigators track back over footage from visiting room cameras. One officer told me that while they were investigating drugs allegedly passing through the visiting room, they saw a guy covertly fingering his wife. This has happened on more than one occasion, but most guards will have enough of a heart not to bother with violations for some covert touching that wasn't caught until the camera review. Most. Sometimes, a rare asshole will just have to assert his power and write a CDV (conduct violation).
Write-ups or CDVs are given by staff at their discretion. The threat of solitary confinement is always looming in prison. It's another clever way of withholding physical interactions with other human beings as a form of torture. Solitary confinement for anywhere from 10 days to three months is a favorite punishment for "[nonviolent] sexual misconduct."
There's also a persistent media narrative that prison systems offer conjugal visit programs out of genuine concern for human welfare. A brief glance at the origins of conjugal visits in the U.S. prison system quickly disproves that theory, showing that conjugal visit programs were conceived as a tool of exploitation and social control.
Conjugal visits originated in Mississippi at the infamous prison plantation, Mississippi State Penitentiary, or Parchman Farm. Mississippi state officials opened Parchman in the early 1900s, writes historian David Oshinsky in his book Worse than Slavery: Parchman Farm and the Ordeal of Jim Crow Justice, in order to ensnare free Black people into forced labor. Mississippi, like other Southern states during Reconstruction, passed "Black Codes" that assigned harsh criminal penalties to minor "offenses" such as vagrancy, loitering, living with white people, and not carrying proof of employment—behaviors that were not considered criminal when done by white people. Using the crime loophole in the relatively new 13th Amendment, Mississippi charged thousands of Black people with crimes and forced them to work on the state's plantation.
Parchman officials started offering sex to Black prisoners as a productivity incentive, "because prison officials wanted as much work as possible from their Negro convicts, whom they believed to have greater sexual needs than whites," Oshinsky writes.
"I never saw it, but I heard tell of truckloads of whores bein' sent up from Cleveland at dusk," said a Parchman prison official quoted by Oshinsky. "The cons who had a good day got to get 'em right there between the rows. In my day, we got civilized—put 'em up in little houses and told everybody that them whores was wives. That kept the Baptists off our backs."
A certain kind of sexual morality has been instilled in the minds of many people with conservative religious upbringings. They naturally force this morality on people they consider children. That is how many guards see prisoners: as children.
Many states did not begin to join Mississippi in offering conjugal visits until much later in the century, when conservative governors like California's Ronald Reagan would determine in 1968 that allowing some married men to have sex with their wives was the best way to reduce "instances of homosexuality" in prisons.
Abolitionists who wrote the book Queer (In)Justice, consider how concerned prison administrations have historically been and continue to be about queer sex in prisons. The book exposes both the deep fear of the liberatory potential of queer sexuality, and a broader reality that prisons are inherently queer places since prisons' "denial of sexual intimacy and agency is a quintessential queer experience."
Beyond behavioral control, the rules that determine conjugal visit eligibility are always also about enforcing criminality, since the state decides what kind of charges render someone ineligible to wed or to have an extended visit. Even in the four states that allow these visits, most people with "violent" charges are only allowed to hold their lover's hand and briefly embrace at the beginning and end of visits.
We don't even have enough privacy to masturbate.
I can be written up if anyone sees my dick, especially in the act of masturbation. I could face solitary confinement, loss of job, visits, religious programs, treatment classes, recreation, canteen spend, and school for getting written up. Conversely, I can be strip-searched at any given time and be forced to show everything.
Living in this fishbowl has taught me there is no hiding. Too many bored eyes in the same small area to miss anything. Guards may come knocking on the door at any moment. My cellmate is often inches away from me, and it takes coordination to manage time away from each other because we eat, sleep, go to yard, and do just about everything on the same schedule.
I choose to skip a meal occasionally and embrace the hunger, because it is much less painful than persistent relentless desire. After years of self-release in showers, in a room with snoring cellmates, or as quickly as possible when a brief moment of privacy occurs, my sex drive is all shook up. Current turn-ons could be said to include faucets running and/or snoring men.
Ultimately, this article is not about the right to conjugal visits. It's about the ways that punitive isolation and deprivation of loving physical contact have always been tactics of the U.S. prison system.
Regardless of the quality of the representations, the prevalence of conjugal visits in movies and TV allows people to avoid thinking too hard about what it's like to be deprived of your sexual autonomy, maybe the rest of your life.
I have been locked up since I was 18, and I am 47 now. To be horny in prison for decades is painful. To the body and soul.
There is justice as well as pleasure at stake here, and the difference between the two is slight.
People who love someone in prison live shorter and harder lives. That we do it anyway shows the significance, centrality, and life-affirming nature of intimate relationships to those on both sides of the wall. Maybe it even points to the abolitionist power of romantic and sexual love between incarcerated and "free" people.
So, I guess we start with that thought and work from there to find a way to tear down the system.