By Josh Sanburn
January 16, 2014

Mississippi will stop conjugal prison visits on Feb. 1, ending a practice it is credited with introducing nearly a century ago. The state is one of five (along with California, New Mexico, New York and Washington) that allow the jailhouse trysts, in which some married inmates with a record of good behavior and a clean bill of health may spend private time with their spouse–usually in a trailer on prison grounds.

The practice began as an incentive for inmates at the Mississippi State Penitentiary, which the state operated as a for-profit plantation, but it came to be seen by some criminologists as a rehabilitative tool. By the early 1990s, at least 17 states allowed the visits. But tight budgets and a tough-on-crime stance led many to drop them. The Mississippi department of corrections, which says just 155 of the state’s 22,000 inmates used the program last year, cited the expense (and the potential for creating incarcerated parents) as a reason for its decision. Recent studies, however, have found that conjugal visits encourage good behavior and reduce sexual violence behind bars. Mississippi’s move, says Temple University history professor Heather Thompson, “flies in the face of absolutely everything that the data shows.”

This appears in the January 27, 2014 issue of TIME.

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