For the last 22 years, Channah Israel has enjoyed overnight visits with her imprisoned husband, a convicted murderer.

But New Mexico Corrections Secretary Gregg Marcantel is putting an end to conjugal visits for inmates as of May 1. Now Israel says she is contemplating a lawsuit aimed at stopping him.

Israel appeared Wednesday before a legislative subcommittee that is studying changes to the criminal justice system. She argued that allowing intimate visits between prisoners and their loved ones is a humane policy and a smart one.

“It increases good behavior,” said Israel, 56, of Albuquerque.

Only inmates with spotless prison records, such as her husband, qualify for conjugal visits, and they are careful to abide by the rules to maintain them, she said.

Taking away conjugal visits, Israel said, would violate existing state law and her rights under the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The amendment guarantees equal protection under the law.

Marcantel was in the committee hearing at the Capitol when Israel spoke. He said he understood her position but disagreed with her.

There is no evidence that overnight visits are helpful in reducing recidivism, and stopping repeat offenses is a priority, Marcantel said.

Only about 2 percent of the state’s 6,925 inmates are allowed overnight family visits. Marcantel says he intends to replace the policy with one in which a far greater number of “family centered activities” will be offered to help inmates prepare for release.

“Like it or not, 96 percent of our inmates are going to return to our neighborhoods,” Marcantel said. “Our goals are to do everything we can to reduce recidivism.”

But Israel said adding more family visitation programs in prisons could be done without ending conjugal visits for her and others.

“Don’t take away something that’s good,” she said.

She met her husband, Bernie Smith, while he was in prison. They had their first night together in prison a day after they were married, she said.

Smith, 58, was convicted of first-degree murder in the 1982 killing of Ralph Pierro. At the time, Smith was living with Pierro’s wife, who was in the process of divorcing Pierro.

While speaking to legislators, Israel described Smith’s crime as one that was tantamount to manslaughter. She said her husband is a model prisoner, and that conjugal visits are so important to him that he did not fight back when another inmate attacked him. She said Smith was determined to maintain a clean record so as not to jeopardize his visits with her.

Legislators on the Criminal Justice Reform Subcommittee listened to Israel but made no comment on her plea that they try to save the 30-year-old practice of conjugal visits in New Mexico.

Afterward, Israel said she hoped to obtain a court injunction to stop Marcantel from ending the visits. State law, she said, mandates these visits for families and cannot be undone by administrative action. She said she had not hired an attorney to pursue the case.

For his part, Macantel said he had analyzed prison practices for two years and concluded that overnight visits be eliminated. The decision was his alone, he said.

“I never one day got pressure from the governor,” Marcantel said of his boss, Gov. Susana Martinez.

New Mexico authorized conjugal visits after the 1980 riot at the Penitentiary of New Mexico, during which 33 inmates died at the hands of fellow prisoners.

In the aftermath of the bloodshed, lawmakers created a system of conjugal visits in hopes of preventing another explosion of violence. Conjugal visits once were widespread in American prisons, but the trend has been to eliminate them. Mississippi also ended the visits this year.

Only four states will allow overnight family visits in prisons after New Mexico bars them.

Contact Milan Simonich at 986-3080 or msimonich@sfnewmexican.com. Follow his Ringside Seat column and blog at santafenewmexican.com.

(5) comments

Martha Rhodes

Well, if proof is what you need. I met my husband shortly before I went to prison for three and a half years on drug charges. I was not doing what I was convicted for although I admitted that I did know how but that's another story. I had two young children at the time. We were married in the Grants facility. After two years, we qualified for family visits. It is now more than twenty years later. My husband and I just celebrated our twenty-second anniversary. My son went to Northwestern University and then into the Air Force. He has two children. He will retire in the next few years. My daughter went to Harvard and then graduated from Boston Architectural College. She is having her second child any minute. I have not had any run-ins with the law since and neither of my children every have. None of this would have been possible without my family. Family visits affected all those lives. That's the truth, every word of it and I can prove it.

Mel Hayes

We can't allow prisoners to have more sex than we are getting! [smile]

Steve Salazar

I bet that Ralph Pierro would love to be having a conjugal visit with someone, even if it wasn't his cheating wife.

Nicole Romero

Current policy maintains that an inmate must have 6 months of clear conduct in order to be eligible for a conjugal visit. That means that Mrs. Smith's husband may have only had 6 months of clear conduct. the cost on the prison system to maintain space and man power is worth cancelling conjugal visits alone. The idea that conjugal visits promote good behavior is short sighted....inmates have to behave for 6 months to a year to recieve a conjugal visit and it has no impact on recidivism. There are currently only 5 states in the US that still allow cunjugal visits so her claim that they violate her rights are innaccurate. The prison system only needs to offer some kind of visits with family....not conjugal.Reasons why the US is beginning to eliminate conjugal visits inproson is due to the spread of disease. the strain on the welfare system when inmates would produce children they are not able to support, the cost of staffing and maintainging spce for the visits. they strain far outweighs the short-sighted impact on behavior.

Rick Dumiak

Dont do the crime if you cant do the time. They are in prison for a reason.

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