The Dark Origins And Troubling Future Of Conjugal Visits In American Prisons

Published September 15, 2016
Updated September 17, 2016
Published September 15, 2016
Updated September 17, 2016

Dark Origins

Parchman Inmates

Wikimedia CommonsParchman Farm, circa 1930.

In the United States, conjugal visits have their roots in the 20th century –specifically in Mississippi’s infamous Parchman Farm, which at the time functioned as a prison labor camp for African-American inmates.

The warden, James Parchman, wanted to encourage the African-American male prisoners to work harder, so he paid prostitutes to visit the farm each Sunday. Inmates could choose from an array of prostitutes, who would only charge 50 cents for sex.

It was plain knowledge to Parchman and prison employees that the visits’ had roots in racist thinking. “You gotta understand that back in them days [n-words] were pretty simple creatures,” a prison sergeant told academic Columbus Hopper in the 1960s. “Give ‘em pork, some greens, some cornbread, and some poontang every now and then and they would work for you.”

The conjugal visit began to spread to a wider population. In the 1930s, Parchman Farm began letting white male prisoners engage in this program (which was presumably prostitution-free by then). By 1972, female inmates could participate.

Parchman Women

Wikimedia CommonsFemale inmates working inside Parchman Farm, circa 1930.

Throughout that decade, prisons in other states took note and added their own facilities for conjugal visits. Parchman Farm was indeed proving to be, as Cosmopolitan writer Cook Knight had christened it when he visited and observed their conjugal visits policy in 1960, “the prison of the future.”

Today, however, things could not be more different.

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