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New Mexico prisons to end overnight family visits

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ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Joining a growing trend nationally, New Mexico Department of Corrections announced Wednesday it is ending its 30-year-old policy of allowing inmates overnight visits with lovers and family.

Beginning May 1, inmates in the state’s 11 prisons will no longer be allowed conjugal visits, the agency announced.

That change means New Mexico is the latest state to end what used to be a common practice in prisons across the country. Mississippi, for example, ended its conjugal visit policy earlier this year despite criticism from some civil rights groups, while only four other states — California, Connecticut, New York, and Washington — still allow the practice.

Supporters of the visits say they help inmates reintegrate back into society later and keep families together. Meanwhile, opponents say the practice is an unnecessary privilege afforded to convicted felonies who are allowed to have sex with spouses and lovers despite their crimes.

New Mexico Corrections Secretary Gregg Marcantel said the change in his state’s policy came after a two-year study, and officials concluded that allowing inmates evenings with loved ones had almost no effect on recidivism rates.

“Some of these policies are old and tired,” Marcantel said. “They aren’t producing the outcomes we need to help our inmates and make our communities safer.”

Instead, Marcantel said the conjugal visits were producing unwanted children, spreading sexual transmitted diseases and being used to introduce contraband into prisons.

The policy in New Mexico was adopted followed a deadly prison riot outside of Santa Fe in 1980. Inmates at the “Old Main” prison killed 33 fellow prisoners in a violent clash that included beheadings, amputations and burned bodies. More than 100 other inmates and guards were hurt in the 36-hour riot fueled by overcrowded conditions.

Conjugal visits were used as a measure to help reduce tensions among New Mexico inmates, officials said.

But recently the policy drew scrutiny after it was revealed last year that convicted killer and rapist Michael Guzman fathered multiple children while serving a life sentence.

Guzman, then 19, was convicted in 1982 of abducting two young students from near the University of New Mexico, raping and fatally stabbing one and trying to kill the other. He was sentenced to death but his death sentence was commuted to life by then-Gov. Toney Anaya in 1986.

New Mexico prison officials estimate about 150 inmates qualify for the overnight family visits with spouses out of roughly 7,000 serving time in prison.

Marcantel said replacing the conjugal visits will be family visits where inmates and spouses can attend seminars on financial planning and classes on parenting.

Ann Edenfield Sweet, executive director of Wings, an inmate and family advocacy group, said conjugal visits “have a lot of value.” But she said she understood the practice’s drain on prison staff and the problems they might bring.

Sweet said she supports the idea of financial seminars and hopes her group can assist. “I’m fine with anything that will help reunite families,” she said.

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Follow Russell Contreras on Twitter at http://twitter.com/russcontreras

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