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The cost of conjugal visitation outweighs the benefits.

The Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction (ODRC) has long-since valued the preservation of stable family and community ties as a part of the rehabilitation of offenders. As research has shown, a strong community support system is a vital element in the successful transition of offenders from incarceration back into the community. Arguably, the most important correctional tool to assist offenders in maintaining stable family relations is a visitation program that allows for meaningful interaction with the significant persons in their lives. Visitation privileges have been linked to increased positive adjustment while incarcerated and lower recidivism rates upon release. While many states have adopted conjugal visitation programs to further promote family relations, Ohio has not found that the benefits outweigh the disadvantages and financial cost to prison administrators, families of offenders and the community.

While conjugal visitation is mostly advocated to assist the offender in maintaining strong family bonds, the usefulness of the program in promoting this goal has not been clearly established. Conjugal visits may be more beneficial to maintaining already functional families than addressing the needs of a dysfunctional family, which is often the case for families of incarcerated individuals. While disputable, the majority of programs tend to place undue emphasis on the sexual aspects of a relationship rather than promoting emotionally healthy relations, such as when families are involved in communal family visitation. In addition, most conjugal visitation programs recognize only legal marriages between heterosexual couples. The establishment of nontraditional family support systems has become more common yet conjugal visitation programs do not recognize these relationships, opening administrators to claims of discrimination.

Instead of promoting healthy family bonding, the unsupervised nature of conjugal visits may actually lead to an increased risk to the physical safety of family members in some cases. While the literature is scant to document the incidence of family violence during conjugal visits, evidence suggests that male perpetrators of family violence remain predisposed to committing further violence during conjugal visits. Supervised visitation that enables interaction in a more, secure environment may better serve families involved in such dysfunctional relationships.

The risk to individuals who participate in conjugal visitation is not limited to dysfunctional family interactions. Clearly, conjugal visitation increases the risk of spreading sexually transmitted diseases by an already identified high-risk population. While prison administrators can provide education and the means to practice safe sex, there is an inherent inability to ensure adherence to safe sex practices. Conjugal visitation requires administrators to give careful consideration to the legal liabilities in fostering sexual interaction among potentially infected offenders and/or their partners. States that have initiated such visitation programs are forced to address the tough moral and ethical dilemma of permitting conjugal visitation for offenders known to be infected, while being unable to know about or prevent such privileges with infected visitors. The prison and, thus, the taxpayer, bears the increased cost of treating individuals who become infected with STDs.

Conjugal visitation also presents an ethical dilemma by increasing the chance of pregnancy when the incarcerated partner often lacks the ability to provide financial and emotional support to the partner and resulting child. Children born as the result of conjugal visitation are denied important emotional bonding with the incarcerated parent. With female offenders, the prison is also forced to finance the cost for medical care of the mother during her pregnancy.

The high-risk nature of conjugal visitation also makes it an expensive program when providing for necessary security precautions. Conjugal visitation programs present an increased cost to provide adequate space to offer such privileges in a dignified, yet secure, manner. Most states that have implemented conjugal visitation programs have had to build or supply dedicated space to accommodate private visits. Increased access for conveying contraband due to the relaxed security conditions also presents a valid concern.

One of the most persuasive arguments against the implementation of conjugal visitation is the disinclination of the public to accept programs that provide extra privileges to convicted felons at a cost to the taxpayer. The "get tough" stance on punishing offenders has led to a re-emphasis on the punitive nature of prison sentences, unfortunately making programs, such as the use of tobacco products and recreational equipment, highly unpopular. With this shift in paradigm, there is a public demand for limiting all extraneous inmate privileges that appear to only benefit inmates.

To further advance the effort to increase strong family bonds, ODRC has included family involvement in its newly adopted offender re-entry philosophy. ODRC is in the process of developing new avenues for engaging families during an offender's incarceration through the adoption of a family orientation program, the formation of a Family Council, and innovative policy changes calling for greater family involvement during confinement and/or any period of community supervision that follows.

Reginald A. Wilkinson, Ed.D, is director of the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction and past president of ACA.
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Title Annotation:Conjugal Visits
Author:Wilkinson, Reginald A.
Publication:Corrections Today
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 1, 2003
Words:813
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