Photo of a package wrapped in brown paper. Photo by Karen Apricot, Flickr CC

Every February, people strive to get reservations in a romantic restaurant, find the right present for the person they love, or send a passionate letter to convey their feelings. But this does not work for everybody. As confinement can prevent prison populations from dating or buying gifts, prisoners and their partners experience Valentine’s Day as a reminder of the far-reaching consequences of the deprivation of their freedom.

Contemporary kinship and family heavily rely on the consumption of goods to express love and affection. However, prison confinement alters conventional rules of exchange and reciprocity. Because of security concerns, correctional authorities eliminate spaces where prisoners can demonstrate physical affection and sustain loving relationships with their partners. Since prisoners also lose the possibility of earning a decent salary and purchasing and exchanging goods, they are prevented from providing for their families, let alone offering them gifts. The difficulties of sustaining loving relationships threatens prisoners identities as spouses, partners, and parents. Men in prison not only lose their freedom, but also their sexual autonomy and sense of masculinity.
Partners of the incarcerated report feeling the burden of alleviating the pains of imprisonment and compensating prison deficiencies by satisfying the needs of their loved ones. Research has found that women in lower income groups spend a substantial portion of their annual income on visits, telephone calls, and packages for their incarcerated partners. While maintaining ties to family during confinement have potential benefits for the imprisoned, the desire to maintain the most basic level of connection involves significant costs, both social and economic, for prisoners’ families.
To circumvent the barriers to demonstrating affection, prisoners and their families resort to creative alternatives to express their love. By adorning and scenting letters, for instance, they create bodily substitutes that convey a sense of physical involvement and mitigate the deprivation of bodily contact that characterizes prison confinement. Despite security concerns, prison administrators have implemented family-visit areas and allowed overnight visits, which allow families and couples to create a sense of intimacy that challenges the emotional deprivations of imprisonment.