Images of majestic landscapes, glaciers, forests, and waterfalls have been shown to reduce tension, help defuse anger and calm prisoners, according to a new study.
Published in Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, the study followed inmates in solitary confinement in an Oregon prison for a year. Inmates who viewed nature videos several times a week committed 26 percent fewer violent infractions than their peers.
“There are all these inmates in maximum security and solitary confinement that we can’t bring lectures to or ecological restoration projects to as we do with inmates in minimum and medium security cellblocks,” said University of Utah biologist Dr. Nalini Nadkarni, who operates science education and conservation programs in minimum and medium security prisons. “I thought, at least we could bring them nature imagery.”
Nadkarni has been bringing science into prisons since 2003, educating prisoners about ecology and helping them become involved in conservation projects. In 2010, an official at the maximum-security Snake River Correctional Institution in Ontario, Oregon, heard a TED talk from Nadkarni and invited her to bring some of the green of nature into the gray of prison.
For the new study, Nadkarni and her research team chose one particular cellblock in the prison, an Intensive Management Unit, housing 48 men in solitary confinement.
Their world is a sea of concrete and their exposure to nature is practically non-existent. Four to five times a week, these inmates are allowed to exercise for 45 minutes in a high-walled concrete recreation yard.
Over the course of a year, half of the men in the cellblock could watch a nature video while exercising, chosen from a list of nearly 40 videos. The videos depicted various nature scenes ranging from deserts to rainforests.
The researchers surveyed and interviewed the inmates and prison staff during that time, and tracked the number of disciplinary referrals, or violent infractions of prison rules, in the cellblock.
Inmates told researchers they felt calmer after watching the videos, with the calm emotions lasting for hours. About 80 percent said the videos made their time easier.
They also reported that they felt the videos helped improve their relationships with staff, and that remembering the videos helped them calm down when they were angry. Four said they were even sleeping better.
“The nature project helps me think clearer to know there is so much more beauty in this world than this prison,” one inmate wrote.
Prison staff agreed, according to the study’s findings. They observed fewer angry outbursts and fewer concerning behaviors.
Staff also offered extra time in the exercise room, with the nature imagery, to prisoners who were agitated, which headed off violent infractions before they occurred.
Many staff were initially skeptical of the value of the videos, but eventually saw the impact these videos could have on the inmates’ nature-starved life, the researchers reported.
Using statistical analysis and data from prison staff, the researchers concluded that if the cellblock were at full capacity, the half that viewed the nature videos would commit 26 percent fewer infractions than the other half. Considering that each infraction has the possibility of injury at worst or degrading staff-inmate relations at best, that number of averted incidents has a “substantial positive impact,” the researchers said.
The benefits of nature imagery likely extend far beyond prison inmates, and can positively impact other nature-deprived populations, according to Nadkarni. More than five million people may fit into those populations, including people in prisons, nursing facilities, homeless shelters, military barracks, and other institutions and facilities.
This fall, Nadkarni and Tierney Thys, a nature videographer with the California Academy of Sciences, will begin creating toolkits with new nature videos from National Geographic and educational materials about the habitats featured in the videos. These will go out to 10 prisons initially, but will be designed to benefit people in any nature-deprived environment.
Another grant, from NASA, will bring experts in astrobiology, or the possible conditions of life on other planets, into prisons, as well as imagery from the Hubble and other space telescopes.
“NASA asked: What habitats do the inmates like best?” Nadkarni said. “I thought, being a forest person, that they’ll all say trees. None of them said trees and forests. They all said, ‘Give us open habitat. Give us deserts and outer space.'”
Source: University of Utah