The question over whether to permit conjugal visits in Australian gaols is a polarising topic. Indeed, many in the community believe inmates forgo their right to spend intimate time with their spouse or significant other once they step through the prison gates.
Most Australian jurisdictions acknowledge the importance of prisoners maintaining family ties. However, only Victoria allows private visitations. Section 38 of the Victorian Corrections Act 1986 provides that the partner of an eligible inmate “may stay with the prisoner in the prison.”
There are multiple reasons behind the widespread reluctance to permit conjugal visits: politicians don’t want to appear soft on crime, there’s the stigma associated with the sexual nature of the visits, and the belief that the deprivation of intimate contact is a component of inmate punishment.
But, the opposition to private visitations flies in the face of the evidence from jurisdictions around the globe where their benefits have been shown. Conjugal visits not only maintain family ties, but they reduce recidivism, along with prison violence.
Furthermore, the UN Basic Principles for the Treatment of Prisoners sets out that “except for those limitations that are demonstrably necessitated by the fact of incarceration, all prisoners shall retain” their human rights and fundamental freedoms.
And as a system of intimate partner visitations is operating in Victoria and elsewhere in the world, it’s clear that in all other Australian jurisdictions inmates are being deprived of a right that their imprisonment does not require be withdrawn.
Justice Action coordinator Brett Collins explained that the principle behind allowing inmates to spend intimate time with their partners is obvious, as contact with family is essential in preserving those relationships.
“Private visits where sex may or may not occur, but a couple can safely deal with each other privately is very important to relieve the strains and keep the intimacy,” Mr Collins said. “It normalises the relationship and gives both participants the feeling of community support for them.”
“The alternative is a single sex society without sexual relief and a partner outside without intimacy.” the long-time prisoner rights advocate added. “Neither is necessary.”
Mr Collins pointed out that Corrective Services NSW states that the two key factors that prevent ex-prisoners from reoffending are family and employment after prison. And as rehabilitation is a basic aim of incarceration, permitting intimate visits would be a practical step in achieving that goal.
Currently, recidivism rates in NSW stand at around 48 percent, which means almost half the more than 13,500 adults being held in the state’s correctional facilities will be sent back to prison for committing further crimes within two years of being released.
The Victorian system
As Monash University student Rebekah Katona-Staindl outlined in her 2016 thesis, Corrections Victoria has a system of residential visits, which fall into two categories. One has a focus on maintaining intimate partner relationships, while the other focuses on relationships with children.
Medium and minimum security prisoners who are serving at least 18 months behind bars are eligible for residential visits, which take place in a motel room like setting. Currently, they’re available at five correctional facilities: Beechworth, Fulham, Loddon, Marngoneet and Tarrengower.
As Ms Katona-Staindl explained an important aspect of residential visits is that they’re an incentive-based reward. And she found that the officials she interviewed as part of her research stressed the importance of the privacy couples shared during these visits, rather than any sexual aspect.
The ACT had a short-lived conjugal visit program at the Alexander Maconochie Centre, which began in 2009. However, the program stalled due to concerns over possible threats to security, and the policy was repealed in 2014.
Retaining outside connections
Fellow of the Australian and New Zealand Society of Criminology Professor Peter Norden has been lobbying for conjugal visits in Australian prisons for decades. The former Catholic chaplain at Pentridge prison began campaigning for intimate partner visits after witnessing their benefits in the Swedish and Netherlands prison systems in the 1990s.
“Retaining family connection has been a significant outcome of the trialling of conjugal visiting in Victoria,” Professor Norden told Sydney Criminal Lawyers®, “something the Scandinavians discovered decades ago.”
Conjugal visits are also permitted in countries such as Brazil, Canada and Russia, while four US states currently allow them. Some of the benefits that have been cited in relation to those programs include improved inmate mental health and promoting reintegration into society.
“One of the biggest negative impacts of imprisonment is the loss of connection to family and significant others, and to one’s community, especially for Indigenous inmates,” Professor Norden continued.
“This results in a greater probability of reoffending upon release and a deterioration of public safety.”
Curbing assaults in prison
Lismore Magistrate David Heilpern conducted research into the sexual assault of young men in NSW prisons in the early 1990s. He found that a quarter of the male inmates aged between 18 to 25 that were surveyed reported having been sexually assaulted whilst in gaol.
The then barrister said that whilst he was undertaking research in the Dutch prison system, where conjugal visits are permitted, he found that not one prisoner or prison officer that he spoke to had seen or heard of a sexual assault inside.
Mr Heilpern recommended that NSW authorities consider implementing conjugal visits, along with single cells and group management, as an initial step in dealing with the high levels of sexual assault in the NSW prison system.
A basic right
Speaking at the Prisons 2015 conference, Justice Health Services senior staff specialist Professor Michael Levy said that as part of a humane prison system, conjugal visits are a basic right that prisoners and their partners should be entitled to.
Professor Levy explained via email that along with the Victorian prisons, the Cadell Training Centre in South Australia allows intimate partner visits. “Anywhere else it can only be a shag in the nursery,” he said, which is “disrespectful of both civilian and prisoner participants.”
“Given that community relationships are so important to rehabilitation,” he concluded, “it is curious that custodial authorities across the country are so committed to abstinence.”
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Paul Gregoire is a Sydney-based journalist and writer. He has a focus on human rights issues, encroachments on civil liberties, drug law reform, gender diversity and First Nations rights. Prior to Sydney Criminal Lawyers®, he wrote for VICE and was the news editor at Sydney’s City Hub.