How long could your relationship last without a kiss? Without more than a kiss? Could you last a year? Two? What about ten? Twenty? In prison, couples are forced to keep their relationships alive in visiting rooms, with 2 second hugs. One two. Let go. So they write letters and make phone calls. Many break up.
But there’s another option. If you’re married or in a domestic partnership, you might be eligible for something called a family visit, also known as a conjugal visit, or on the inside, a booty call. It means a couple can be together, inside prison, alone or with their children for extended visits. They can have privacy and they can have sex.
Back in the 90’s, 17 states allowed prisoners to have these conjugal visits. But things have changed. Earlier this year, Mississippi and New Mexico both ended conjugal visits in their prisons and today only three states, New York, Washington and California allow inmates to have this kind of intimacy.
I’m standing with Myesha Paul at the gate at San Quentin, the prison just north of San Francisco. Because her husband, Marcello Paul is locked up in a California prison, they still qualify for a conjugal visit and she’s letting me tag along.
Myesha is middle aged with short, bleached blond hair and a no-nonsense look in her eye. She’s wearing baggy red sweatpants and a sweatshirt that’s too big. She knows the spoken and unspoken rules to one of these visits. The officers guarding the prison have told another woman who’s come for a visit she has to go back to her car and change before she’ll be allowed inside.
“Her t-shirt is fitting real tight, so yeah, they’re gonna make her change all that,” Myesha says watching the woman walk away. “You go through a lot comin’ up her. It got to the point where I just come up in sweat pants. Baggy sweat pants. Too much of a hassle. I’m not puttin’ on anybody else’s clothes. Leggings are comfortable but they’re not for up in here.”
“Why not,” I ask.
“They’re a little too revealing. They don’t want you to have anything that’s form fitting and although we come with hips and all that, so it’s kinda hard to find that don’t fit around, you know?” Myesha laughs, looking down at her full body. “I just buy some men’s sweat pants and make it work.”
“So when you’re inside, do you bring different clothes to wear for when you’re alone?” I ask.
“Mostly just shorts or comfortable pajamas,” Myesha says. “I don’t usually get dressed.”
Even in California not all prisoners qualify for these intimate visits. Prisoners convicted of a sexual crime or a violent crime against a minor or a member of their family and those serving life sentences are denied conjugal visits. Except for what happens behind closed doors during these officially sanctioned private visits, sex is totally illegal in prison. That means tens of thousands men and women locked up in prisons throughout in America may never be able to sleep next to their partner or have sex, ever again.
As Myesha waits outside the gate, I ask her to describe the process for going inside the prison for a conjugal visit. Looking at the door stamped VISITOR, Myesha says, “I’m waiting for the family visit coordinator to come. (Officer) Foster. He’ll come and he’ll take me in there,” she says looking past the door into a space where officers will check her belongings. “He’ll get my bags and go through them instead of the metal detector. Then I go through the metal detector. I also go inside and pick out some movies, dominoes, that type of thing. Then he’ll grab my stuff, put it in the trunk, and take me down to see my husband.”
Watching Myesha pass through security, I imagine this prison approved sex will happen someplace prison-like, in a tiny room with a bare mattress. They’ll give them an hour.
Turns out, it’s not like that at all.
After passing through a metal detector Officer Foster helps Myesha carry her duffle bag and personal things to the car. It’s his job to escort the previous visitor out, and turn right back around and drive Myesha, in. One in, one out.
It’s a long drive around the edge of the prison, through a big gated checkpoint and up to a small one-story building surrounded by chain-link fence that’s topped with razor wire. An officer looks down from a watchtower nearby.
Marcello Paul, a big man with dreadlocks, gold capped teeth and a beaming smile walks to the opposite side of the locked gate and waits.
(Marcello Paul waiting for the officer to unlock the gate surrounding the apartment where he will spend the weekend with Myesha.)
When it’s opened, Marcello and Myesha give each other a quick hug, and help carry the bags and pre-ordered food into the apartment.
While Myesha puts the food into the refrigerator, Marcello gives me a tour of the two-bedroom apartment.
(Myesha putting food away for their weekend visit.)
There are cabinets with dishes, cups, bowls and plates, a microwave, sink and stove. There’s a table where Marcello says they say grace and play games. In the living room is a puffy black couch and chair. Marcello says it’s black leather. It’s not really leather, but it’s nice.
There are two bedrooms. The first has a worn double mattress on a metal frame. Marcello says he does a pre-clean to make sure everything is intact and washed, and then two days later, when it’s time to go, he cleans everything again, so it’s just the same as when they came in.
Turning from the first bedroom, is a bathroom with a door on it. That’s no small thing inside prison where toilets are public.
Looking into the spare room, a portable baby crib leans against the wall. Some couples bring their children along on a family visit. Myseha and Marcello don’t have any shared children so they spend their weekends alone.
In the middle of the room is a double bed, metal springs sticking out the edge of the mattress. But it’s the large round wet spot in the middle of the mattress we’re both looking at. Marcello says he’ll turn the mattress over and lay down a lot of blankets on top of the mattress.
Standing with Marcello, looking around, if it weren’t for the two officers standing in the middle of the room, it’d seem like a pretty normal apartment.
The officer tells me it’s time to go. Marcello and Myesha get just 48 hours together in the apartment. Once a month.
(Myesha and Marcello Paul on the porch of the apartment the day their conjugal visit begins.)
Myesha says they’ve been together 14 years. They met and fell in love while Myesha, a home health care worker, was taking care of Marcello’s mom. Marcello had committed a robbery before they met and gotten away with it. But eventually, it caught up with him and he was sentenced to 10 years. He’s done five of them.
I think about them all weekend.
Monday morning, I go back and meet up with Myesha as she’s coming out. We sit in her car and talk. She says the weekend with Marcello, “was good. It’s always good. Just don’t like going home.”
“Why?” I ask.
“I’m leaving my husband behind,” Myesha says. “We sat outside and played dominoes on Saturday. After that we went in and watched TV, watched movies.” She says they started with The Wire.
She tells me they pulled the bed into the living room so they could lie together while they watched. They cooked burgers and tacos. They listened to music. And sure, she says, they had sex. I ask if they ever have a conjugal visit when they don’t have sex. Myesha pauses, then says, “No. I mean we might have a conjugal visit where we don’t have as much sex as the one before. But no.”
But she says, for her a conjugal visit really isn’t about the sex. It’s about the smaller, quieter things, like Marcello waking her up in the morning, “It feels good,” she says, “because I don’t get that at home. Ya know. At home I’m sleeping by myself, unless my grandbaby or one of my kids wanna sleep with me. But they’re grown. But they still do sleep with me sometimes. But other than that, ya know, I’m waking myself up in the morning, or the alarm clock is waking me up, or my grandson comes and wakes me up. It’s good to have my husband waking me up.
“It’s the nicest thing about being married,” I say, “isn’t it? Waking up?”
“Yeah,” Myesha says, “Together.”
“Not alone,” I say, “You look up and there’s that person.”
“Yeah. I think he watches me through the night,” Myesha says, “ I know he do cause sometimes I wake up and he’s looking at me. And I do the same to him. Sometimes he’s sleeping and he wakes up and I’m watching him.”
While we’re sitting in her car, talking, her cell phone rings. It’s Marcello calling to make sure Myesha gets home safe.
Even though conjugal visits aren’t allowed in most US prisons, in many countries they’re common. Australia, Brazil, Canada, Denmark, Germany, Israel, Russia, Spain, and Saudi Arabia all allow inmates and their partners to have conjugal visits. Mexico considers them a universal privilege and even allows families to move into prisons and live with their imprisoned relative.
All photos courtesy Nancy Mullane.
Edited By: Sally Herships
Produced By: Kaitlin Prest
Advisory Panel Scholar: Hadar Aviram
Music Composed by: Lawrence English