After a two-year review of the New Mexico Department of Corrections’ visitation policy, cabinet Secretary Gregg Marcantel has decided to eliminate overnight family and conjugal visits at both privately operated and state run prisons.
Beginning May 1, males inmates will be not be allowed overnight trailer visits with family members or spouses.
The department, which spent 24 months studying the value of spending $120,000 a year to prepare and monitor the inmates' conjugal visits, claims it couldn't prove whether they had any benefits.
"We determined that Overnight Family Visits were not helping offenders reconnect to their families any more than a regular contact visit," writes Marcantel in a statement to SFR. After the change, only three other states, California, New York, and Washington will continue to offer conjugal visits to inmates who qualify for them. Mississippi ended its family overnight stays in February.
Not everyone is happy about the changes.
R. Doyle Reynolds, who lives outside of New Mexico and travels for hours to visit an imprisoned son in a trailer for 12 hours was notified last week those long private family visits would be eliminated next month.
"This is going to cause an uproar on both sides of the prison walls," writes Reynolds in an email to SFR. Reynolds claims there are rumors of some families preparing lawsuits, but Tomlin says the department hasn't been notified about any litigation.
"We can certainly understand why the 2 percent of inmates that were receiving what are commonly called conjugal visits would be upset but like I told the inmates, my burden to do what is right and help them return to the community as better men and women is far greater than my desire to make them happy," states Marcantel.
The new policy does allow women inmates sentenced to minimum and medium security facilities for three years or less to spend one night a month with underage children if they qualify. Female prisoners have to have a clean prison and work record and must complete a 10-week parenting class before being allowed the trailer visits. Adult-aged children of the women are prohibited from the trailer visits.
Even as overnight visits are phased out, the Department of Corrections is preparing to launch a new visitation program for inmates outside of maximum security units and administratively segregated.
Corrections Public Affairs Director Alexandra Tomlin says the department is focused on providing new opportunities to connect more inmates with their families. She says the department is planning new family days. According to Tomlin, those could include father-daughter dances, basketball tournaments, and even family picnics. Officials at the department plan to allow inmates to offer ideas for the family days and hope the new style program helps them transition to living in their communities easier after they are released.
When the program rolls out next month, inmates housed in Level 1 or 2 units will be eligible for four family days a year, Level 3 inmates will earn family days biannually, and Level 4 inmates once a year.
"The majority of inmates are excited," says Tomlin, pointing to Level 4 inmates who didn't have contact visits under the old policy. She says she hopes the new family days work as an incentive for inmates to earn lower level classifications.
The department is also planning to produce seminars for inmates, including classes on coping with grief, parenting and personal finances. Prisoners will earn education credits for attending the seminars.
The conjugal visit program was launched after the 1980 riot at the New Mexico State Prison.
Lawmakers directed prison officials to make sure inmates were getting visits, but left it up to administrators to decide what kind of visits.
Tomlin says there is no law requiring conjugal visits.
"We have reserve the right to change our policy," says Tomlin.
Last year, Gov. Susana Martinez said conjugal visits for convicted rapist and murderer Michael Guzman was unacceptable. Guzman has fathered four children while serving a life sentence behind bars. At the time, Martinez told a KOAT reporter she was going to direct the Corrections Department to review its policy, but Tomlin says the review had been underway for months before the story aired.
"It was the secretary's decision," says Tomlin. "It wasn't a kneejerk reaction."
Only about 140 inmates, or 2 percent of the inmate population, were eligible for the conjugal visits.
During regular visits, inmates are allowed to briefly kiss and touch family members, but French kissing is prohibited. Tomlin says during picnics inmates won't be allowed to lay down with spouses or other visitors.
New Mexico Department of Corrections Visitation Policy: