Conjugal Visits Don't Fit All Notions Of Punishment

Every 30 days, just as confinement at Walla Walla rankles him, Bruce Bushey, a convicted killer and lifer without parole, meets alone with his wife for 22 hours in an apartment on prison grounds.

They talk about family life. The kids. The bills.

They might - if they so desire - have sex.

Prison officials refer to these relatively new privileges of inmates as the Family Visitation Program. Others simply call them conjugal visits.

Washington is one of only eight states - California, Connecticut, New Mexico, South Carolina, Mississippi, New York and Wyoming are the others - that provide such programs to some of their most dangerous inmates.

"I think that contact with families plays an important part in stabilizing behavior. It plays an important part in the control of our facilities," says James Spalding, director of prisons for the Washington Department of Corrections.

Spalding started the state's Family Visitation Program in 1981, the same year, coincidentally, the present life-without-parole sentence went into effect.


"It was a program we felt would give us better control over our inmate populations," he says. "It's a program that provides incentives for inmates."

Indeed, the program is among the most highly touted by state prison officials. They contend it lessens violence, increases control over inmates and stabilizes family life.

About 15 percent of Walla Walla's 2,200 prison population - about 330 inmates - use the program. Several are lifers without parole. And the number of participants is expected to increase.

"It's not just husband and wives and sexual-related visits," Spalding says. "There are a lot of people who visit with children, their mothers, fathers and grandparents. It's a real important part of our inmates' existence."

Not everyone agrees.

Critics say the program is full of contradictions. They cite examples of convicted murderers and rapists, such as Bruce Bushey, who have opportunities to remain intimate with their spouses - even though they're serving life without parole for committing heinous crimes.

Others argue it puts too much emphasis on physical aspects of marriage, is unfair to unmarried inmates and decreases the intensity of punishment.

"I didn't support them in the beginning, and I don't support them now," says state Senate Majority Leader, Jeanette Hayner, R-Walla Walla. "They cost too much money and I think people feel that (allowing conjugal visits) is going a little bit too far.

"Many of the people I talk to believe prison is supposed to be a form of punishment, and therefore they don't wish to finance these type of programs."

While many prison officials applaud family-visitation programs, others say the state's program is flawed. James Blodgett, superintendent of the state penitentiary at Walla Walla, is among them. He likes the "original purpose" of conjugal visits, but opposes what he says it has become.

"The problem I have is that it goes beyond maintaining family ties. Many inmates marry (after they're sentenced and imprisoned) and then receive conjugal visits," Blodgett says.

David Jirovec, 55, is one of them. He was single when sentenced to life without the possibility of parole about four years ago. He was convicted of hiring two hit men to kill his wife for less than $30,000 in life-insurance policies.

Now he is once again a married man. He met his present wife, Lou Jirovec, a second-grade teacher in Oregon, while in prison. They had been pen pals for several months when, after some discussion, she agreed to visit him. That led to other visits.

"One Sunday, as I listened to her, I said, `I wish I had a wife just like you,' " Jirovec recalled, as he sat in his jail cell at Walla Walla.

"She looked at me and said, `David, I want to be your wife.' "

Four months later, on Aug. 31, 1990, they were married.

While they scoff at suggestions he married her to participate in the program, David Jirovec suspects other inmates do marry to receive conjugal visits.

The issues, however, extend far beyond whether inmates marry to receive conjugal visits. Indeed, at the top of most critics' lists is the criminal history of the Jirovecs and Busheys of Walla Walla.

Should a person who took another's life live humanely? Have family visits? Receive private 22-hour, once-a-month apartment visits on prison grounds with spouses? Have the right to intimacy? At the state taxpayers expense? At the expense, even, of their victims' families?

"It's a very volatile issue," said Jerry Davis, a spokesman at Walla Walla. "It's a big expense, and the question is whether the citizens of the state are willing to pay for it.

"But from the institution's point of view, it helps control a portion of the inmates. They will make behavior adjustments so they can participate or continue to participate in the program. It's a motivator - a management tool that assist us in getting cooperation from inmates."


Bushey says the Family Visitation Program is the one aspect of his imprisonment that makes him seem alive.

"For me, this visit is the one time each month I get to go out and be normal, sane, relaxed and secure," he says. "I can interact with my family and be as normal as I possibly can for a short period of time. I'd go crazy if I couldn't."

Spalding says Bushey and other inmates are likely to continue to receive conjugal visits.

"We are expected to take these individuals for 40, 50, 60 or 70 years and provide them with the things they need to live," Spalding says. "If we don't, and decide to treat them like animals, they'll respond like animals."