California has begun allowing overnight visits for gay and lesbian partners of prison inmates to conform to the state's domestic partnership law.
California is one of just six states that allow overnight family visits, which take place in trailers or other housing on prison grounds. But attorneys, gay rights advocates and corrections officials said they know of no other state that permits conjugal visits by same-sex partners.
"Historically, these types of requests were denied," said Terry Thornton, a spokeswoman for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. "Homosexuality is a touchy subject in prison. We don't want people to come to harm in prisons, but we need to comply with the law."
Since the 1970s, immediate family members have been able to visit many prison inmates for up to three days at a time.
Privilege for registered domestic partners
The privilege is being expanded to registered domestic partners under a law signed by former Gov. Gray Davis that took effect in 2005. It requires state agencies to give the same rights to domestic partners that heterosexual couples receive.
"This was one of the issues raised at the time. It's unfortunate that it's taken the Department of Corrections so long to comply with the law," said Geoffrey Kors, executive director of Equality California.
Thornton said the Corrections Department had already started examining its policies last year when the issue drew the attention of the American Civil Liberties Union.
Vernon Foeller had requested an overnight visit from his partner a year ago while he was serving an 18-month sentence at the California Medical Facility in Vacaville for an attempted burglary conviction. When his request was denied, Foeller complained to the ACLU.
"To tell a couple like my partner and I that we weren't eligible, that to me is absolute discrimination," Foeller said in a telephone interview.
Foeller, who was paroled in April and lives in Sacramento, registered his domestic partnership in August 2005, before he was incarcerated.
"You have a condition of unequal treatment," ACLU staff attorney Alex Cleghorn said. "They were being denied something for which they were eligible."
The new regulations permit visits only by registered domestic partners who are not themselves in custody, and the domestic partnership must have been established before one of the partners went to prison.
Remaining connected with families
The policy will formally take effect later this year, but the department already is complying. Foeller was allowed an overnight visit with his partner in December.
"I got to spend 2 1/2 days one-on-one with my partner, my best friend, my confidant, my life partner. It wasn't about the sex," Foeller said. "You can actually just relax and get to know your partner again."
Overnight visits allow inmates to remain connected to their families and help prepare them for their eventual release, Cleghorn said. There is no record of how many domestic partners are serving prison terms.
Family visits are not permitted for condemned inmates, inmates serving life without parole or those who have not had a parole date set, or for sex offenders. Inmates serving time for a violent offense against a minor or a family member also are ineligible.
Randy Thomasson, president of the Campaign for Children and Families, objects to conjugal visits for both gay and straight inmates.
"These are unsupervised sex visits in trailers or rooms, and the guards can't go in there," Thomasson said. "It's the main way of smuggling contraband for some of these inmates."
Inmates also can spread sexually transmitted diseases, regardless of their sexual orientation, he said.