By Colleen Jenkins
(Reuters) - Twice a month, high school math teacher Kelly Muscolino and her husband, an inmate serving 20 years for armed robbery, get to share one hour together away from the watchful eyes of guards at the Mississippi prison where he is locked up.
The couple's last visit alone might have been their last until Mike Muscolino is free. The Mississippi corrections department announced it will no longer allow conjugal visits as of February 1, ending a century-old program in the first U.S. state to sanction sex for prisoners.
Corrections commissioner Christopher Epps said a practice that began as a strategy to control inmates in the early 1900s would cease in Mississippi due to concerns about costs and the number of children possibly being conceived during the visits.
Those who believe prisoners do not deserve the privilege of such intimacy during their punishment welcomed the news. But inmates and their spouses are upset by a policy change they say will further strain their difficult marital circumstances.
"That's the only time when we get to see each other and we don't have somebody telling us that we're too close or that our hug lasted too long," said Kelly Muscolino, 35. "We need that bond."
Once a common practice in U.S. prisons, soon only California, New Mexico, Washington and New York state prisons will permit conjugal visits. Federal prisons do not allow them.
Epps, chief of Mississippi's prisons since 2002, has noted that conjugal visits encourage good inmate behavior and strengthen families. Studies also show that states with the visits have lower levels of sexual violence among prisoners.
But the commissioner said he could no longer justify the supervision and maintenance costs in light of his department's $22.4 million budget deficit.
A corrections spokeswoman could not say how much money will be saved. During the last fiscal year, only 155 inmates out of the more than 22,000 in Mississippi received conjugal visits.
Dozens of spouses and family members of inmates affected by the change have joined a new group, Mississippi Advocates for Prisoners, to try to convince Epps to reconsider. They will hold a rally on Friday near the Capitol building in Jackson.
The group faces steep odds. Even if they sway Epps, a Republican state lawmaker says he plans to file legislation to make conjugal visits illegal in Mississippi prisons.
Representative Richard Bennett, whose first attempt at outlawing the visits failed in 2012, said it makes sense to strip some rights for those who commit crimes.
"It's just like putting a kid in timeout," Bennett said. "Do you give them their favorite things?"
PROSTITUTES AND 'RED HOUSES'
Mississippi's current program is for well-behaved, married inmates in minimum custody levels, but the practice began far differently.
The Mississippi prison warden who established the country's first conjugal visits program limited it to black male inmates, in the belief that the chance for sex would help control their aggression and make them work harder in the cotton fields.
Prostitutes were brought in for prisoners without wives or girlfriends. The program opened to white men in the 1940s after buildings, known as "red houses" for their paint color, were built to make the sexual encounters seem more respectable.
Female prisoners did not become eligible for conjugal visits in Mississippi until 1972.
Last month, Epps announced his decision to discontinue all conjugal visits and inflamed proponents of the program when he waded into the debate over whether prisoners should have the chance to procreate while behind bars.
"Even though we provide contraception, we have no idea how many women are getting pregnant only for the child to be raised by one parent," he said in a statement.
One such woman, Glendia Mason, a 35-year-old criminal justice instructor, said the fact that she conceived a daughter and a son with her husband while he serves a lengthy sentence for aggravated assault is none of the commissioner's business.
"I have a good job," Mason said. "I take care of my children." Conjugal visits provide more than sex, inmates' spouses said. They offer a chance, she said, "to talk and comfort one another like any other husband and wife."
(Reporting by Colleen Jenkins in Winston-Salem, North Carolina; Editing by Scott Malone and Stephen Powell)