The state officially announced the change in policy last week, making New York one of the few states to grant the private visits for gay and lesbian inmates in legally recognized same-sex partnerships. Although the policy will directly affect a relatively small number of people, advocates for same-sex marriage say it's an important step toward full equality for gay and lesbian couples.
"This is a recognition of same-sex couples as families," Molly McKay of Marriage Equality USA, a group that lobbies for same-sex marriage, told AOL News by phone today. "These are exactly the kinds of indignities that same-sex couples have suffered when they were not recognized." Although same-sex marriage is not legal in New York, the prison policy honors same-sex relationships that are legally recognized in other states.
California began allowing conjugal visits for inmates in same-sex domestic partnerships in 2007, and a similar policy is in effect in Washington state. In Connecticut, where same-sex marriage is legal, no conjugal visits are allowed for any inmates. Prison officials there said today that no requests have been made so far for what it calls "extended family visits" by inmates in same-sex relationships.
The New York policy was approved in 2008 by then-Gov. David Paterson but was not added to the state Register formalizing the change until April 20, as the New York Daily News noted. Peter Cutler, spokesman for the New York Department of Correctional Services, told the Daily News he couldn't explain why the policy was just recently formalized.
David Fathi, the director of the American Civil Liberties Union's National Prison Project, said private visits with family members help inmates maintain relationships that will encourage them to stay out of prison after their release. "One of the best predictors of prisoners successfully reintegrating when they leave prison is whether they've stayed in contact with family on the outside," Fathi told AOL News today. "These visits are very important to sustaining those connections."
Cutler said there has been one request for a conjugal visit so far by an inmate in a same-sex relationship. He said the request is pending.