Maintaining a long-distance relationship can be challenging at the best of times. For most women, the idea of not seeing a partner for months on end can be daunting, to say the least. But what about keeping a relationship together during a prison sentence?
The Howard League for Penal Reform estimates that this is the reality for approximately 80,000 women in the UK who have a partner incarcerated in a British jail. With a limited number of visits per month, typically lasting for a maximum of two hours each, prison can have an almost instantaneously damaging effect on a marriage or relationship. Often with years apart stretching ahead, it’s no wonder that relationship breakdown is a common side-effect of prison life.
According to The Prison Reform Trust, the average distance an individual has to travel to visit their partner in prison is 60 miles. Making calls from prison costs money, and staff shortages mean that prisoners spend more time locked in their cells, which equates to fewer opportunities to keep in regular contact with family.
However, one prisoner appeared in court earlier this year citing a different reason for prison violence and family breakdown. Stuart Horner is serving a life sentence for murder at HMP Manchester and told the court that prisoners not being able to have sex with their partners was having a far bigger effect than we might think.
For women on the outside, little to no physical contact and zero opportunities for sexual intimacy while their partner is incarcerated is obviously very difficult. How are you meant to feel close to your partner? And in the case of a long sentence, are you expected to stay faithful?
In the summer of 2014, The Howard League released a report entitled Sex in Prison. It explored the possibility of conjugal visits – which are not permitted in the UK but operate successfully in much of Europe, Canada and even the Middle East. Lorraine Atkinson was one of the researchers behind the paper.
“There’s a lot of evidence around how having a strong relationship on the outside is a very good indicator that you won’t go on and commit other crimes” says Lorraine.
But if conjugal visits were to become legal in the UK, would women even be interested in partaking in them?
“Intimacy is a key word,” she explains, “that was something that clearly came out from the research – the partners didn’t necessarily want to go in and have a sexual encounter. They wanted to be able to touch, cuddle them, that kind of thing.”
The rigid structure of prison visits undoubtedly contributes to relationship breakdown. Visits take place around a table, often with a piece of wood underneath to prohibit anything being passed between. The security search process for visitors, and any delays getting prisoners out of their cells mean that a two-hour visit can easily end up being half an hour shorter. Women with children usually bring them – so time spent alone, partner-to-partner, is a rarity.
Josie Bevan knows all too well the reality of prison visits. Her husband Rob was sentenced to eight years for tax fraud last summer and Josie has taken to writing a successful blog, Prison Bag, to detail what it’s like to “be locked out, as well as locked in”.
Would you like to have a relationship with your boyfriend where you couldn't touch him or kiss him or make love?
She had a healthy sexual relationship with her husband before sentencing and felt that it was integral to her happy, 16-year-long relationship. For Josie, maintaining her marriage is now a priority – and one that she believes is crucial to the future wellbeing of her two daughters.
“My children will certainly be more okay if I can keep my relationship together over the next eight years, which is no easy feat without any form of intimacy,” she says. “Would you like to have a relationship with your boyfriend where you couldn’t touch him or kiss him or make love or any of the things that are actually vital?”
The couple love one another and for Josie, staying faithful is a no-brainer. However, prior to Rob’s sentencing, the question of fidelity did arise.
“Before my husband went to jail, in the years where him going to jail wasn’t a cert, he’d say to me, ‘Babe, just do what you’ve got to do, okay?’ Because he knows me and we had a really good relationship like that,” says Josie. “And I’m saying, 'Of course I’m not going to do what I’ve got to do, of course I’m not going to do that'. As it got more and more likely, that really wasn’t what I was hearing from him, it was, ‘Babe, please wait for me’.”
Waiting, it seems, is the name of the game when it comes to seeing a relationship through a prison sentence. Josie and Rob have years ahead of them, devoid of any form of physical intimacy: “It would be great if I can be okay and stay faithful to him and I hope that will happen. Of course I have a choice in that, but it’s a pretty shitty choice and it’s a choice that I don’t think I should be having to make."
If conjugal visits were allowed, Josie would jump at the chance. She’s even thinking of starting a campaign to introduce them in the UK.
“They do it all over the place because it improves outcomes for prisoners, it improves outcomes for their wives – we don’t do it in Britain because we’re really prudish,” she says. “I’m at an age where I’m very in charge of my sexuality and proud of it. I think people should have sex, I think I should have sex and it would probably be better for everyone if it was with my husband.”
She makes a compelling point. But it’s certainly not the opinion of every “prison wife” out there. Debbie Hayes is Operations Manager for Partners of Prisoners, an organisation that offers support to individuals with a partner serving a prison sentence. She came into contact with the organisation after her husband was in jail between 2007 and 2010.
Unlike Josie, Debbie wasn’t aware of the full extent of her husband’s crimes when he was sentenced. As a result, his time in prison became an opportunity for the couple to rebuild the trust in their relationship.
Norway, where conjugal visits are allowed, has one of the lowest reoffending rates in the world
“When he went to prison I just told him, ‘If you want me to remain with you for these years, I have to see everything now, I need to know everything, I want the power of attorney because I’m going to sort everything out now.’”
Prison visits became integral to this – yet sexual intimacy wasn't something Debbie even considered. “The trust had been broken to a certain degree because of the offence he had committed,” she explains. “Going forward it was all about, ‘So what are we going to do to rebuild our relationship and rebuild the trust?’ Intimacy was the furthest thing from my mind – what I wanted to do was thrash him over the head.”
The lack of physical contact actually worked in the couple’s favour. It allowed them to re-establish a connection, with no distractions, ultimately building a stronger relationship in the long run.
“For me, the visits were really important, it was about time really getting to know each other, dealing with why he made the decision to do what he did instead of talking things through in the first instance,” Debbie says. “It’s about being able to provide contact that gives reassurance. I wanted to feel his hands against my hands. Just that contact – that’s what I needed. Anything more intimate, I couldn’t have got my head around it.”
Every relationship is different and a prison sentence doesn’t change that. Conjugal visits may work for one couple but for another, they might feel too forced.
There’s no denying their success, though. Lorraine from The Howard League visited Halden prison in Norway in 2014, where conjugal visits are allowed. Inmates can have as many visits with a partner as they like, with private visits taking place in a room containing a sofa bed, a cupboard with sheets, towels and condoms, and a sink.
“The whole ethos of Norwegian prisons was about enabling people to be reintegrated when they are released,” says Lorraine, “and part of that ethos was encouraging people to maintain family contact so it’s easier for them to go on to lead a law-abiding life.”
As a result, Norway has one of the lowest reoffending rates in the world, currently standing at 20%. In comparison, 59% of British prisoners reoffend within a year of being released.
With no prospect of conjugal visits becoming a reality in the UK anytime soon, all that prison partners can do is navigate the separation and disruption a jail sentence brings as best as they can. For Josie, this means phone calls, letters and plenty of hand-holding a couple of times a month around the prison visit table. For Debbie, it meant something different – but which proved equally integral to the success of her relationship.
But for the UK justice system, maybe the appetite for change that is currently consuming prison policy will extend to the sexual rights of similar women who are “locked out”. Sexual intimacy has the power to bring people closer, even with a cell door and a punitive sentence in the way. Or as Josie puts it: “It would do a lot for a lot of people.” With the prison system in crisis, perhaps it’s time we started to pay attention.