The Evolution of the Conjugal Visit

While serving a 25-year-to-life sentence, Ivié De Molina had a four-night honeymoon in a trailer

Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash

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It had been 18 years since Ivié De Molina had been with a man. Arrested on her 28th birthday for murder, robbery, and kidnapping, she is serving a 25-year-to-life sentence at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility, a women’s maximum-security prison in Westchester, New York. Ivié posted an ad on the pen-pal site and received mostly disappointing offers from prospective men. (One fellow wanted her to send him her pubic hair.) Just before her ad was about to expire, Ivié received a letter from a dashing Canadian who seemed too good to be true. After 11 months of visits, letters, and phone calls, Ivié and that dashing Canadian, Stefan, were married. Six months later, after being approved by government officials in Albany, the couple spent their four-night, five-day honeymoon in a trailer on Bedford Hills prison property. In her self-published account of the whirlwind romance, 25 to Love: A True Pen-Pal Fairytale, Ivié quips about the high-octane romp: “9 1/2 Weeks has nada on [our] 4 Nights & Five Days, absolutely nothing.”

In the prison visiting room, which resembles a high school cafeteria, Ivié walked me through a typical trailer visit. She and Stefan have been married for six years now and enjoy a two-night stint in the trailers every six weeks, with a four-night stay just once a year. Ivié will arrive at their appointed trailer a few hours before her husband, and she always goes through the same ritual: “I change into shorts, brew a pot of coffee, blast the radio, and clean every inch of the trailer with bleach, just like you’d do on your day off.” In addition to the obvious benefits of physical touch and intimacy, Ivié enjoys experiencing a sense of normal domestic tranquility. The couple will barbecue in any weather, go for walks around the prison grounds, and play games on an ancient Sega Genesis. But more than anything, Ivié enjoys being of service to her husband: “I pamper him, give him manicures and pedicures. I like to cook for him.” Prisoners are dependent upon their loved ones on the outside for so much. In those 48 hours of quasi-freedom, they can finally return the many favors.

Stefan was nervous going to his first trailer visit: “Would it be some horrible place with a dirty bed?” he recalls wondering. He found it to be a modest bungalow with two bedrooms, a living room, and a kitchenette. Getting through security takes about two hours, as prison officials check every piece of food and luggage he brings in, on the lookout for contraband like drugs and cellphones. On their honeymoon, Stefan even wore a nightgown he had brought for Ivié under his clothes, as he wasn’t sure it would pass officers’ muster. He’s been visiting Ivié this way every month and a half for the past six years. “The visits are the happiest moments of my month,” Stefan says. “It’s a romantic weekend getaway; a time to relax, sit down, have a cup of coffee, and talk about whatever you want for hours.”

Conjugal visits today exist in just four states: California, New York, Connecticut, and Washington. And conjugals are available only in state prisons, not federal facilities. “Conjugal visits” is a misnomer, because in these states, anyone who is immediate family or legally married can spend a few nights with their loved one in a mobile home for a few days of normalcy. Ivié even spent time in a trailer with her mother before she passed a few years ago. “I would color and style her hair and do her makeup,” she said. “The time was so precious.”

For female prisoners, family visits are an especially vital time to reconnect with children. At Bedford Hills, new mothers can spend the first year of their child’s lives with them. At 12 months, custody goes to either the father, a family member, or a foster parent.

But the origins of family visits are less wholesome. In the United States, conjugal visits grew out of racist Jim Crow attitudes. It started in the early 1900s as an incentive at the Mississippi State Prison, also known as Parchman. Sex workers were used as an incentive for work, a privilege was limited to African-American inmates in the racially segregated prison due to racist beliefs about their insatiable sexual appetites. Scholar Columbus B. Hopper wrote the definitive history of Parchman, and his work is cited throughout the literature on conjugal visits:

[Sex workers] arrived every Sunday afternoon on a flatbed truck driven by a pimp as lordly as any who ride city streets in pink Cadillacs. The women did a thriving business at the individual camps which were scattered over the 22,000 acres of prison land. According to a song written by an inmate of the era, the price of a prostitute’s service was 50 cents, not a small amount during the Great Depression when many people worked a 12-hour day for a dollar.

Inmates and sex workers rendezvoused in homespun “red houses,” tiny huts with a moniker echoing “red-light districts.” The prison officially sanctioned the program in 1972 and extended the privilege to women, though they had to be legally married.

Twenty years ago, 17 states offered conjugal visiting. California initiated its program under Governor Ronald Reagan in 1968. But in 1974, the decision in Lyons v. Gilligan determined that prisoners have no constitutional rights to conjugal visits with partners during their sentences. And harbinger Mississippi shuttered its program in 2014, due to the state’s corrections budget facing a $30 million deficit. Not surprisingly, the United States is on the more conservative side when it comes to allowing prisoners privacy with loved ones. In India, conjugals are considered a legal right, not a privilege. Many Latin American prisons even allow private visits for unmarried inmates. Allegedly, Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzmán enjoyed 46 conjugal visits in the 16 months he spent at the maximum-security prison Antiplano prior to his escape.

Research shows that conjugal visits have positive effects on prison populations, lowering sexual violence and reducing rates of recidivism. In a 2012 study published in the American Journal of Criminal Justice, researchers found that states with conjugal visiting programs had lower rates of sexual assaults among inmates than those without. Family connections are the number one means to ensure success once the imprisoned person comes home. The Minnesota Department of Corrections found in 2015 that a single visit correlated with a 25 percent drop in technical violations and a 13 percent decrease in new crimes upon release.

Ivié says her heart breaks every time she reaches the end of her 48 hours. She cries seeing Stefan’s car leave the gate. “But you have to be grateful for what you have. There are women in here who don’t get trailer visits,” Ivié tells me. “I’m just grateful I have that time. That’s how you get through.”

Author of PLAYING DEAD: A Journey Through the World of Death Fraud. Holler at @lizgreenwood4u

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