How a Marriage Survives Prison

Conjugal visits at Ossining help one couple make it through a long sentence.

Four times a year Michelle Archer, 39, travels two hours from her suburban home in Long Island, New York to the mountainous countryside of Ossining for a 48-hour visit with her husband, Jermaine, an inmate at the Sing Sing Correctional Facility.

This year marks the couple’s 18th year apart. On March 12, 1998, Jermaine Archer was arrested and charged for a murder he allegedly committed the summer before on a deserted street in his drug-riddled Queens neighborhood. It all started on Church Avenue where Archer got into a heated argument with a local drug dealer by the name of Reynaldo Niles. Several hours later, Reynaldo’s brother Patrick Niles would be shot and killed in a moving car that was driving down Archer’s block—he would later give a sworn statement that Archer was the killer.

For the past 18 years, he has been serving a 22-year to life sentence in the confines of his dark, cramped cell. However, once every four months Archer is provided with a bit of hope again. He gets to spend time with his wife and family through family reunion visits at Ossining.

Michelle is certainly grateful. “The family reunion program strengthens our relationship by allowing us to interact with each other as a family,” she said. “I look forward to waking up with him every morning. It gives us an outlook of what’s to come when he comes home.”

The two have been together since 1997 when a friend introduced them in Brooklyn. At the time, Michelle was working as a painter, raising two kids on her own, while Jermaine was drug dealing on the streets. Although they came from two different worlds, they instantly fell in love, married, and started to build a life together. But that all came to a screeching halt when Jermaine was arrested.

Ossining Correctional Facility lies an hour north of New York City. This all-male maximum security prison offers educational, vocational and various other programs for its more than over 1,803 inmates. While conjugal visits date back to the early 1900’s, the family reunion program started just around 1940. It allows inmates and their families to spend quality time together in the comfort of private on-site trailers, each comprised of two bedrooms, a living room, kitchen, and bathroom.

To Michelle, it is a gift. “The only way I could describe my first FRP visit was all butterflies,” she said. “I didn’t know what to expect. I was anxious, excited and nervous all at the same time. I remember going online to read the directive just to make sure that I can bring certain items.”

And it’s good that she did. The correctional facility does not allow visitors to bring in any perishable items that are not hermetically sealed, or any items containing alcohol, which includes lotion, soap, mouthwash, and even food. What the facility does permit are clothes, approved food and personal hygiene products. Other products such as pillows, blankets, bed linens, towels, soap, and condoms are all provided by the facility.

But Jermaine says all that matters is his wife’s company. Holding her, kissing her, and just seeing her face again.

California, Connecticut, Washington, and New York are presently the only states in the country that offer some form of conjugal visits, which are also referred to as the “family reunion program” or the “extended family program.” In order to qualify for these extended private “visits,” inmates and family members must submit a formal application indicating their relationship to one another and proof of previous regular visits. The program’s goal is to “preserve, enhance, and strengthen family ties.”

At Ossining, ineligible inmates include those who have previously violated program regulations or exhibited disruptive behavior, or were convicted of domestic crimes, or are being held in high security or specialized units, such as the special housing unit (SHU), which is for inmates in isolated and disciplinary confinement. Immediate family -spouses, children, parents and grandparents – are all permitted for visitation, while extended family members are all subjected to special review.

Over the past several years Michelle has brought her entire family to Jermaine, including her two children, whom he now calls his own, and his mother.

“Jermaine would help our daughter with her homework. My mother-in-law would cook us a wonderful dinner for Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s dinner in February,” she said, describing the normal family activities they experience through the program “There is a basketball hoop outside of the trailer so our son would play together with him.”

Alongside the miniature basketball court, each of the six trailers also include a television, DVD player, and small stereo. In regards to security, the entire unit is checked for all items down to the utensils and cutting knife that is chained and anchored to the sink. Upon entry, approved visitors go through a thorough security check and interview process. Michelle remembers her first family reunion program visit like it was yesterday.

“Well one of the first things we did was consummate our marriage. Then we put the food I brought away,” she said.

But for Michelle, reuniting with her husband was about much more than sex.

“We had the chance to talk for hours and had some interesting conversations that we normally can’t have over the phone. Then, he purchased film at commissary so that we could take pictures with a Polaroid camera.”

According to a recent report released by the Correctional Association of New York, Family Reunion Program visits within the Ossining correctional facility have significantly increased over the past nine years, and demand continues to grow. Although 22 correctional facilities within the state of New York offer the program, inmates at other New York facilities, or those in the 46 states throughout the country that don’t offer any kind of similar program, are not so lucky.

In a study conducted at Florida International University, researchers found that state prison systems that permit conjugal visits report lower rates of recidivism and “fewer rapes and sexual assaults than those where such visits are prohibited.”

Her husband is not eligible for parole until May 2021. Meanwhile, for the past sixteen years Michelle Archer has never missed a family reunion program visit and she doesn’t plan on changing that anytime soon.

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