MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. Now we go to Mississippi where a change in prison conditions is set to take place next week. We're talking about conjugal visits, also known as extended family visits. Mississippi is one of only six states where these visits are still permitted for lower-level offenders. But now officials there say that the privilege is too expensive to maintain and they will end them. But this made us curious about the history of conjugal visits. So we called on Heather Thompson. She's an associate professor of History at Temple University and she's with us now. Welcome, Professor Thompson. Thanks so much for speaking with us.
HEATHER THOMPSON: Thanks for having me.
MARTIN: You were telling us that conjugal visits in the U.S. actually started in Mississippi in around 1918. What was the purpose of them?
THOMPSON: Well, it's an interesting history. 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.
MARTIN: Wait. Was this explicit? I mean, were they - did they say, if you meet such and such a quota, then you get a conjugal visit?
THOMPSON: Well, certainly holding out the carrot of having sex was quite explicit. The historian that really writes the most about this, David Oshinsky, makes clear, though, that 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. And so they did so by carrots and sticks, and of course the sticks were much more frequent and much more brutal.
MARTIN: So has the attitude about it changed? Is it now believed to be, what - a way to keep family bonds intact?
THOMPSON: Well, eventually even Mississippi, I mean, 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. And it's really unfortunate that this focus has been on the sex and the conjugal part of this program because the idea is that this is about both the good of families on the outside as well as people on the inside.
MARTIN: But how does it actually work? I mean, is it that these are, what - trailers or there are facilities or buildings set aside on the prison grounds where families...
THOMPSON: Right, so...
MARTIN: ...Can, what? Stay for the weekend? How does it work?
THOMPSON: Each state has a slightly different arrangement, but basically these could be trailers or they could be small apartments. But, again, we need to understand that this is something that's given to people who are in medium to minimum-security facilities, with the idea being that it's very important for people to see their families because there's just so much evidence that shows that this is good for society in general.
MARTIN: Well, is there any data to show that it, in fact, has this benefit?
THOMPSON: Yes, indeed. I mean, 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 these are both incentives for good behavior, but also that it's really good for reducing violence in the prison and so forth. But there's also just 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. And there's no question that the data for children shows that these are people who would keep these relationships with their children and their spouses that would benefit them on the other side, benefit everyone.
MARTIN: Well, you know, to that end, the Mississippi Department of Corrections Commissioner, Christopher B. Epps, said in a release that he is terminating these visits because of budgetary constraints. But he also said in a release that the decision was about decreasing the possibility that more children would be conceived who would then have to be raised by single parents. He says, quote, 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. And the implication here is that it's not...
MARTIN: ...In the best interest for society to kind of create the conditions which would allow more children to be raised in single-parent households, at least for the duration of the incarceration. Do you think that - what is your assessment of that point of view?
THOMPSON: No, I think - I just think it's, you know, it is in some respects a ridiculous argument for a number of reasons. First of all, with regard to the cost, when Mississippi was pressed, there was really very little data on this. They couldn't really even explain how much it cost. You're talking about a program that is already so restrictive that last year it's my understanding that only a 155 people out of almost 23,000 people in the system even had access to this program. So there's very little evidence that this is immediately too costly. So that's number one. But the other issue has to do with this question of single parenting and children born out of wedlock. The data I've seen, first of all, shows that the pregnancy rate is not exorbitantly high and certainly not higher than in society in general. And the other thing I want to say about this - remember, you know, my point about - these are families who will be reunited. These are families who will be together. And so to make this argument that children that happened to be born out of these visits should not have been born is sort of ridiculous.
Think about the corollary. If we were to say that, for example, people that went to the military who had to go away for four years to Iraq should never have had children or shouldn't have children if they come home on leave - we would never say that. So what we're really saying is that we don't believe that prisoners, people who have offended, quote-unquote, should have the right to have children or have the right to parent their children.
MARTIN: I think that many people would disagree with your analogy, which leads me to my final question, which is that many people would say that that, you know, it's unfortunate for the families, but that is one of the - that's the price you pay for committing a crime. That you have...
MARTIN: ...Privileges taken away from you. And one of the privileges, one of the most important privileges you have taken away from you is the ability to be fully present for your family. And...
MARTIN: ...That anything you do to make prison more comfortable, let me say, let me just put it that way - I know you would disagree with that, but just for the sake of argument, is not to be encouraged. And so...
MARTIN: ...I think their argument is that it is not analogous to the military in which people are in fact serving the country as opposed to having committed penalties or having transgressed the boundaries or the laws of the country. And those are completely different.
THOMPSON: Absolutely. That's exactly - that is exactly the argument that they would make. My counter to that would be not - I'm not equating even, I'm not necessarily equating people who are in prison with people in the military. That was not actually the point. The point is it has to do with the children on the outside. Children, for example, do better when they are connected with their parents, particularly assuming that these parents are not violent people.
Then we know that this would be, from a broader point of view, would be good for children. But it's also good in general because what we know from the data is that this benefits the society because people who are bound to community tend to do better when they come back to the community.
MARTIN: Are there other countries around the world where this practice is still in use?
THOMPSON: The closest example to us of course is Canada. And in Canada, inmates are allowed conjugal visits, not just with spouses and partners and their children, which is what we were talking about, but also their parents. Particularly this is important for young people in prison, even in-laws. And outside of this country it's my understanding that quite a few countries have this. I think Trinidad, there's some programs like this in Turkey, Costa Rica, my understanding Israel, Mexico and several Latin American countries.
So it - again, we have moved towards a much more punitive moment in our history. You know, it's not 'til 1974 actually, in a district court ruling out of the Ohio, that it's decided that inmates don't have a constitutional right to this.
MARTIN: You're saying that we're in a much more punitive moment when it comes to criminal justice. But we're also in a moment where political players on both the right and the left have been willing to revisit some of these issues in part because of the expense of high levels of incarceration. From your discussions of these issues, I mean, this is a research area of interest of yours, is there any move afoot to rethink this in other places?
THOMPSON: Absolutely. And what's actually quite interesting about this is that Mississippi I think is kind of an outlier in the way that they're thinking about this. To the right and to the left people are thinking that the system is broken, which it is, and that we need to de-incarcerate more, we need to think about criminal justice in a smarter way. And in fact, many programs are pushing back the other way which is to say we need stronger re-entry programs.
We need stronger programs for children of the incarcerated. We need stronger programs so that people do not come back to prison. Mississippi's decision to save money on a program that they can't even document was too expensive is actually an outlier I would say, in the direction we need to go.
MARTIN: Heather Thompson is an associate professor of History. She's also in the Department of African-American studies at Temple University. And she was kind enough to join us on the line from Philadelphia. Professor Thompson, thanks so much for speaking with us.
THOMPSON: Thanks so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.