Same-Sex Conjugal Visits for Inmates Stir Debate

By Randy Hall | July 7, 2008 | 8:06pm EDT

( - California's decision to allow overnight visits for registered domestic partners of prison inmates has drawn praise from homosexual advocacy groups as furthering "marriage equality," but conservative pro-family activists say the state is "sponsoring immorality."

"California is continuing to tear down the fabric of godly marriage by encouraging and recognizing domestic partners whose lifestyles are immoral," Phil Magnan, director of Biblical Family Advocates, said in a statement Tuesday.

"Though visits by family or friends can be helpful, encouraging immoral behavior is not the road to recovery," he argued. If the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation "is truly committed to rehabilitation, they should reconsider the gravity of sponsoring immorality by those under their care" and reject "state-sponsored sodomy."

Randy Thomasson, president of the Campaign for Children and Families, went even further, objecting to conjugal visits for all of 170,000 inmates in the state, whether homosexual or heterosexual.

"These are unsupervised sex visits in trailers or rooms, and the guards can't go in there," Thomasson told Cybercast News Service. "It's the main way of smuggling in contraband for some of these inmates" and can also further the spread sexually transmitted diseases, he added.

The policy change came about after Vernon Foeller, an HIV-positive man serving an 18-month sentence at the California Medical Facility in Vacaville for attempted burglary last year, requested an overnight visit from his domestic partner, who does not want to disclose his name.

"Historically, these types of requests were denied," Terry Thornton, a spokeswoman for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, told the Associated Press. "Homosexuality is a touchy subject in prison. We don't want people to come to harm in prisons, but we need to comply with the law."

When that request was turned down, Foeller and his partner contacted the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).

"You have a condition of unequal treatment," ACLU of Northern California staff attorney Alex Cleghorn said in a news release at the time. "They are being denied something for which they are eligible."

Faced with the threat of an ACLU lawsuit, the Department of Corrections announced that it has begun to allow overnight visits for inmates with registered domestic partners and will adopt permanent regulations later this year.

Geoffrey Kors, executive director of the homosexual advocacy group Equality California, praised the decision.

"We are pleased that the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation has recognized that lesbian and gay prisoners also form lasting commitments and are more likely to be productive members of society when they are given the opportunity to nurture their relationships through family visits," Cleghorn stated.

"Giving those serving a prison sentence an opportunity to spend quality time with their loved ones has proven to be a critical tool in rehabilitation," he added.

Thomasson disagreed, noting that "conjugal visits started in Mississippi in 1918 as a privilege to motivate prisoners to work hard." However, that experiment has proven to be a failure, he added, noting that the policy is not practiced in 44 states.

Currently, only California, Connecticut, Mississippi, New Mexico, New York and Washington allow conjugal visits. They allow an inmate at a minimum security facility to spend the night with spouses, siblings or grandparents in a controlled setting, such as a trailer or a special room.

Inmates must undergo a background check and meet other requirements to qualify for the privilege, such as having a history of good behavior. Both visitor and inmate are searched before and after the visit.

Overnight visits are prohibited for condemned prisoners, inmates sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole and people sentenced to indeterminate life sentences who have not been awarded a parole date.

Thomasson blamed the situation on the California Domestic Partner Rights and Responsibilities Act of 2003 and those who promoted it.

"The real culprit here is former Gov. Gray Davis and the Democrats in the California legislature, who emptied marriage of its uniqueness by awarding virtually every legal right of marriage under California law to homosexual registered domestic partners," he said.

Magnan agreed. "Domestic partner legislation is unconscionable and dishonors the marriage bed that is intended for heterosexuals alone," he said. "One can only pity the Corrections Department having to submit to such immoral laws."

Thomasson said the conjugal visit issue was just "one story" in the battle over marriage in California.

The Democrat-controlled state Senate voted on Monday on what he described as a move "to functionally abolish marriage by awarding a man and a woman who are 'shacking up' all of the rights of marriage even when they refuse to become married."

He called for passage of a state constitutional amendment that "will override the judges and politicians and fully and permanently protect marriage rights for one man and one woman, once and for all."

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