Nature Imagery in Prisons Project

By Nalini Nadkarni, SPP Co-Founder, John Wasiutynski, Director of the Office of Sustainability for Multnomah County, and Joslyn Rose Trivett, SPP Education and Outreach Manager

The human race has been intimately connected with and dependent upon nature throughout its history. Our species gains numerous physical, emotional, spiritual, and mental health benefits through contact with the natural world; this has been strongly demonstrated by research in a variety of settings (see library curated by the Children’s Nature Network, and another compiled by a member of the faculty at University of Washington’s College of the Environment).

Dr. Nalini Nadkarni querying inmate on which of a variety of nature images are most appealing prior to showing videos in solitary confinement cellblocks, Washington Corrections Center, Shelton, Washington. Photo by Benj Drummond.

For some people, contact with nature and the outdoors is difficult or impossible. People incarcerated in “segregation”, maximum security areas, do not have access to the “yard” or any outdoor areas inside or outside prison fences. In these cases, vicarious nature video experiences may be the only possible contact with nonhuman nature. Nature videos cannot provide full relief from of the many emotional, cognitive, and physical stresses associated with segregation, but they can reduce stress, aggression, and other negative emotions. Plus, providing nature imagery to inmates imposes little additional burden on corrections staff.

Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office improved Inverness Jail’s Treatment Readiness Dorm with nature imagery. It’s a small change that creates a noticeable shift in the character of the room. Inmates’ response to this pilot was unanimously positive; following this success, staff have added nature imagery to nearly all the dorms in the two jails. Photo by Alene Davis.

Championed and supported by an inspired team, Nature Imagery in Prisons Project (NIPP) is gaining traction as a new standard for segregated housing and other areas of prisons. The NIPP team first conducted a study at Snake River Correctional Institution in Oregon, which resulted in definitive findings. Interviews of staff members revealed that although many were initially skeptical about offering nature imagery to inmates, by the end of the year-long study the majority of staff recognized the offering as potentially valuable. Staff respondents agreed that the inmates became calmer after viewing the videos, and that these effects lasted for hours, with less violent behaviors and fewer angry outbursts by inmates.

Incarcerated individuals in the program reported feeling significantly calmer, less irritable, and more empathetic. Analyses of prison records revealed that those inmates who watched nature videos committed 26% fewer violent infractions compared to those without videos. More detailed program results are available in the January 2017 issue of Corrections Today and a research brief from Oregon Youth Authority.

Nature Imagery in Prisons Project has gained high-level media attention from Time magazine, MSNBC, and the Oregonian, and will be the cover story for Frontiers of Ecology and the Environment in September. As of August, 2017, there are active and in-development programs in Alaska, Nebraska, Florida, Oregon, Wisconsin, Utah, and Washington State. Oregon (Multnomah County and state corrections) and Washington State have extended the concept beyond segregation, offering nature imagery in computer labs, staff areas, day rooms, and mental health/therapeutic-focused living units.

Results from the Snake River program and staff and inmate testimonials suggest that exposure to nature imagery can be helpful. It is a low-cost, low impact intervention that is helpful in reducing disciplinary referrals, violent behavior, physiological states, and connections and reconnections to nature. More research is needed to understand specific elements of the program, and inform application nationwide.

Acknowledgments: The research team for this project includes Tierney Thys, Patricia Hasbach, Emily Gaines, and Lance Schnacker. Funding was provided by the National Science Foundation, the University of Utah, and an anonymous donor.

This Nature Imagery room at Washington Corrections Center is accessible to 150 men with severe cognitive challenges, and can be a place for self-calming.  One of the residents said, “My mind is eased. I like to be there all the time.” SPP’s Evergreen and WA Corrections staff discuss modifications that will improve the program space. Photo by Ricky Osborne.

 

 

 

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