Nature contact in prison

Dominque Moran, Professor in Carceral Geography, University of Birmingham

Very strong opinions are held about what is ‘appropriate’ in prison. Public opinion, as reported in a vigilant media, complains that prisons resemble ‘holiday camps’ and are ‘too soft’, instead demanding harsher prison conditions. These may satisfy a visceral urge to ‘punish’, and for prisoners to ‘suffer’, but are they actually any good at addressing the high levels of violence, self-harm and reoffending that plague today’s prisons? Or do we need a different approach? Alongside the recent pledge for investment in prison security, it is important to consider how investment in surroundings can impact rehabilitative outcomes.

Prisons are typically highly-controlled spaces, in which buildings and fences are carefully planned to maintain a secure perimeter and clear sightlines, and to minimise opportunities for prisoners to self-harm, to scale vertical structures, or to conceal contraband. They are often grey, stark, and lacking in trees and green spaces. They are also environments whose cost, both capital-build and facilities-management, is under constant scrutiny.

Cost and security will always matter, and if we continue to incarcerate at current levels (or even higher) then these issues will persist. But what if, when designing prisons, we also considered what features might be therapeutic, whilst also being low-cost and low-risk? What if nature contact could help?

This may seem an odd suggestion, but we know that in other ‘institutional’ environments such as hospitals, views of green spaces and access to nature improves wellbeing – reducing stress and anxiety amongst both patients and staff, and improving recovery. Longstanding research means that wherever possible, evidence-based hospital design now includes gardens and provision of green views. However, a relative lack of comparable research – as well as a reluctance to consider them ‘therapeutic’ rather than ‘punitive’ - means that such design input is poorly developed in prisons.

Recent research at the University of Birmingham is starting to establish a robust evidence base for the transferability of healthcare findings to the custodial context. A recent prison study suggests that the calming, de-stressing effects of nature contact observed in healthcare facilities are also found in prisons. Looking at the effects of prison nature contact, in the form of outdoor green spaces and whole-wall photographic images of the natural environment, it found that in an otherwise stressful context, such elements increased self-reported feelings of calm, and the ability to reflect. For example, one prisoner described looking at one of the images:

"These images make a difference, because every time I look at them I don't just think “Oh that looks nice” - I can feel the wind flapping my jacket. I can hear my dog barking. I can smell the fresh air. I can feel the grass on my feet. It makes me imagine and dream. It gets me out of jail for however long. Every time I look at it I notice something that I couldn't see before."

…and another described his experiences of green spaces:

"There are more grass areas or small gardens and parks where I can go to relax if the weather is nice. I sit down on the grass and let my mind wander in peace whereas [prison] is like a concrete jungle."

Why should we want prisoners to imagine and dream, to relax, and let their minds wander? Apart from the fact that these experiences are characteristic of normal life, and should be possible if prisons are safe, decent and humane, research suggests that they may also be beneficial in reducing stress and violence.

Prison life, with its hardships and risks, causes chronic stress and mental fatigue. This is problematic not just because of impacts on individual wellbeing, but because stress and mental fatigue are thought to limit the capacity to act in a ‘reasonable’ manner - controlling impulses, considering responses, and treating others with respect and kindness. In prisons mental fatigue probably contributes to poorly controlled impulses, hasty responses and disrespectful interactions which in turn bring about tension and violence, hindering rehabilitation and making daily life extremely tough for those living and working in them. Addressing mental fatigue means providing ‘restorative’ environments in which the mind can idly reflect, without being on high alert. As the prisoners quoted above indicate, green spaces and nature images enable such restoration.

Enhancing nature contact cannot resolve all the deep-seated and systemic problems plaguing contemporary prison systems, but it can support broader policy initiatives aimed at addressing these challenges.

Dominique Moran, Professor in Carceral Geography, University of Birmingham