‘Private’ lives, ‘public’ space: focus on prisons and conjugal visits

A few weeks ago, the Howard League for Penal Reform released a press statement which announced that it will undertake the first ever review of sex inside prison.  As prison cells are deemed to be public places, sex is therefore an unlawful activity within them.  An Independent Commission consisting of academics, former prisoner governors and health experts will focus on consensual and coercive sex in prisons, as well as the healthy sexual development among young people in prisons. 

The outcome of the review will indeed be interesting for geographers with interest in examining the relationships between sex, identity and spaces of confinement.  These themes have indeed been dominant in previous scholarship.  For example, Teresa Dirsuweit’s (1999) paper based on research in South African women’s prisons revealed the way in which prisoners have transgressed the normal expectations of sexuality.  In order to perform some of the basic human instincts of intimacy and interaction, some women revealed a participation in homosexual relationships and inmate ‘families’ – practices not necessarily associated with their previous lives outside of prison. 

The acknowledgement of the importance of maintaining some form of sexual relationship during incarceration has provided some serious pressure on UK policy-makers to consider allowing prisoners to have conjugal visits – a practice currently denied to prisoners in the UK, though facilitated in other countries such as the USA, Germany and Denmark.  For decades prisoners have expressed their desire to access the same benefits enjoyed by these other countries.  In 2010, Christopher Pollock, an inmate at HMP Birmingham, argued that conjugal visits should be given as a reward for good behaviour, and that partners on the ‘outside’ also suffer greatly without the conventional functions of a sexual relationship. 

Other advocates have illustrated their help in maintaining stronger relationships with the outside world; a factor which is widely considered key to reducing recidivism.  Ethnographer Megan Comfort (2002) conducted a study which focused upon California’s San Quentin State Prison.  Here she interviewed the partners of 50 inmates, some of whom take part in ‘family visits’ where prisoners can have their immediate family stay with them overnight in purpose-built bungalows.   The couples or families could talk, cook for themselves, and of course be physical, in their own company.  One woman named Tee revealed that the main benefit was that ‘you got a little sense of, ‘Hey, we’re really married! We’re really a couple! We’re really, we’re intimate,’ you know, we got to be intimate and everything. (Comfort 2002, 487).

However, conjugal visits have been fiercely contested by organisation such as the UK Independence Party, whose recent statement claimed that the Howard League’s study is a ‘waste of time and money’.  The Party’s Deputy Leader Paul Nuttall MEP argued that ‘imprisonment is supposed to be a punishment – though we all know already that many such institutions are more like holiday camps’.  Although the statement acknowledges that conjugal visits may decrease the level of coercive sexual activity behind bars, Nuttall furthered added: ‘the public, quite rightly, want prisoners to be punished for their crimes – not rewarded with TVs, computers and gyms – and certainly not romantic liaisons with their partners’. 

Other perspectives have also revealed additional opposition.  Comfort’s study also revealed the ‘institutionalising’ of families being forced to conduct relationships under the strict prison regime, which augmented their behaviour – the impact of conducting private lives in public spaces.  To me, this seems to be a key concern and one which was highlighted by prisoner’s wife ‘Julie’ in a phone-in conducted by BBC 5 Live Breakfast.  ‘Julie’ said that she ‘couldn’t think of anything worse than going off into a little room to have sex with [her] husband.  The lack of dignity, it would just be awful … and I know my husband wouldn’t want me to do it anyway.’  This raises the question about the kind of institutional restrictions that would be placed on the intimate relationships between couples, particularly relating to public and prison security and control of contraband items. 

These restrictions appear to exemplify the concerns of the National Offender Management Service surrounding the cultural and organisational changes which would be required to implement conjugal visits.  Suitable visitation areas, some form of surveillance and potentially family planning advice would all have to be provided and budgeted for.  ‘Julie’s’ final comment is that she ‘simply wouldn’t trust the Prison Service to handle this sensitively’. 

In any case, the Howard League report will no doubt provide some reading surrounding such a serious, yet sensitive subject, particularly for academics working in this notoriously-difficult-to-access environment.  However, much more I hope that it is also one which, if the UK is ever to facilitate conjugal visitation rights, could help authorities to implement changes fairly and well. 


Comfort, M L 2002 ‘Papa’s house’: the prison as domestic and social satellite. Ethnography 3 467-99.

Dirsuweit, T 1999 Carceral spaces in South Africa: a case study of institutional power, sexuality and transgression in a women’s prison. Geoforum 30 71-83.


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