Call for right to conjugal visits in Irish prisons


A former US prison governor has called for Irish inmates to be given the right to conjugal visits in prison.

James Cummins, who introduced the practice of letting wives and children stay overnight with prisoners in Washington State Penitentiary, said it had very positive effects.

"The purpose of it is to try and keep families together. Because when someone goes to prison that's married, it's a tremendous strain on the family. And those involved with it say it's been very successful," he said.

The practice has never been introduced in Irish prisons but schemes have been set up in the US, Canada and other countries around the world. They allow most prisoners, with the exception of violent and sexual offenders, to spend occasional weekends with their wives and children in purpose-built accommodation units in the prison complex or in mobile homes.

"It's an incentive for good behaviour for prisoners and it certainly does make a difference. It's my view that it's certainly worth considering seriously (in Ireland)," said Mr Cummins.

He emigrated from Tullamore, County Offaly in the 1960s and in 1973 he began a ten year reign as governor of Washington State Penitentiary, which housed 2,000 prisoners on a 540-acre site.

"You name it, we had everything. It was kind of the end of the line in the system - lots of lifers doing life without parole, all cultures, all races," said Mr Cummins.

He said that in all his years in charge, there had been only one problem -a domestic violence incident - during the conjugal visits. "It's highly regulated. Not every Tom, Dick and Harry in the joint can get it.

They have to show good behaviour and be classified by a committee to make sure they are suitable. We also have to make sure that the people coming in are OK too, that they don't pack drugs into the institution," he said.

He added that because the scheme was restricted to married prisoners, there was no question of 'some guy and his girlfriend' getting weekend privileges.

The first conjugal visits were allowed in a Mississippi prison in 1918 but the practice remains controversial in the US. It is restricted to just six states, because many see it as making prison too comfortable for inmates.

"You get the argument that those people did wrong and need to be punished and kept outside the pale. My belief is that it is a tool to assist the family unit," said Mr Cummins.

The Irish Supreme Court rejected a court challenge in the 1970s to the ban on conjugal visits for prisoners and the issue has remained dormant since, although Sinn Féin did raise it in negotiations about political prisoners' rights prior to the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.

The Irish Prison Service said there were currently no plans to introduce conjugal visits. "It's not something that has come up at all.

There are obviously issues about how you manage that sort of situation, the resources needed and the risk of contraband being passed," said a spokesman.