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.