The Howard League of Penal Reform has announced that it is going to carry out extensive, two-year research into sex in prisons. Part of this research will include looking into conjugal visits. It seems likely they will once again suggest the adoption of a visitation scheme in the UK. 

Despite flirting with reforms of penal policy, the coalition has been reticent to be seen to be granting our ever increasing prison population anything that could be deemed greater rights. At a time when reducing public expenditure and, now a year on from the widespread riots, addressing the country’s social problems are at the coal face of political rhetoric, we need a government that is willing to engage in real debate about these issues.

Parliamentary discussions on conjugal visitation rights have largely followed the same pattern: an individual MP raises a question on the topic; there is a declaration that the government has no present intention to allow conjugal visits; there is a prolonged period of deafening silence. As with the spectre of prisoner voting, there has been little attempt to look at the merits of such schemes.

Large swathes of Europe have adopted some form of private visitation scheme, as have both our Canadian and American cousins to a greater or lesser extent. What research there has been into private visitation largely supports the idea that it has significant positive effects: reduced prisoner-on-prisoner sexual violence; increased adherence to prison rules; reduced breaches of parole; reduced re-offending; and positive effects on the inmate’s family, particularly where they have children.

There are potential social and fiscal benefits to this kind of scheme. Firstly, a reduction in re-offending would mean a drop in the prison population, where every inmate costs around £40,000 a year. Second, allowing inmates to foster and maintain familial relationships will have effects beyond their own re-offending. The links between families with strong social ties and the positive development of children have long been established, including lower rates of criminality and increased educational attainment.

The first step towards a genuine debate on the issue is to carefully consider how we label it.  We need to move away from the Americanised term ‘conjugal visit’; a phrase which conjures up mental images of a cheap motel room for inmates.

Instead, we should look to adopt more positive, neutral terminology. The Canadians have developed ‘Private Family Visits’; a term which has less of the seedy connotations and is more reflective of the reality.

Private Family Visits are perhaps the epitome of a functional, positive scheme and a model toward which we should strive. Regional schemes started in the 1960s and developed into a national program.  Offenders incarcerated for more than 2 years are entitled to visits of up to 72 hours, a maximum of every 2 months. Visits are subject to stringent prior assessment of the inmate and the visitors, and dependent on good behaviour. They are given access to a small, fully furnished apartment, with one or two bedrooms, a kitchen, living room, bathroom and even outdoor space in which the inmate, his partner and his children can experience family life.

Whilst sex is one aspect of private visitations, they are about much more than that. They are about maintaining strong family ties and social integration, not just with partners but with children. It can only be hoped that the results of the research by the Howard League will bring about proper discussion on prisoner’s rights.