A one-hour houseplant-potting workshop may be a simple way to help improve the moods of women in prison, according to a new study published in the International Journal of Prisoner Health.
Previous studies on a variety of populations — not just those in prison — have shown that exposure to nature improves mental health and well-being. Research has also demonstrated the benefits of long-term, nature-oriented programs for individuals who are incarcerated.
For example, horticulture classes, have been linked to vocational and social skill-building, while interior design and programmatic enhancements to prisons, like windows and the availability of nature videos, have been tied to a decrease in aggression.
“So often we run into people who say individuals who are incarcerated don’t deserve things like this, that it’s a luxury,” said Barb Toews, assistant professor of criminal justice in the Social Work and Criminal Justice Program at University of Washington Tacoma. “But research shows it’s a necessity, and how can we provide that necessity?”
“My interest is not just in how we can make prisons prettier or more humane, but how we can take this separation from the community and turn it into a space that promotes accountability and health, where people can feel accountable, rather than defensive, about what they’ve done.”
The planting experiment involved about a dozen incarcerated women, all of whom lived in a support wing for inmates with moderate mental health diagnoses. The women spent an hour in a common area transplanting succulents and African violets into small plastic cups to bring back to their rooms, and potting larger plants, such as ficus and Norfolk Island pine, into larger containers for display in a common area.
While the activity didn’t require any special gardening skills, it did involve social interaction and cooperation — no small task in a prison setting, Toews said. The women completed written surveys about their emotional states before and after the planting party; five women also participated in interviews.
The findings reveal that the women enjoyed the experience. The surveys provided emojis — a useful additional tool, Toews said, to help participants articulate their feelings.
The women reported that the plants brightened their own rooms as well as the common area, and, for some participants, the event triggered positive memories or brought a sense of community. The women used words like “homey,” “peaceful” and “calm” to describe how they felt, and how the greenery enhanced their surroundings.
For the participants, the activity was a respite, a little slice of nature they got to bring back to their cells, say the researchers.
Whether or not these feelings lasted is unknown, Toews said. But even at one hour, the experience had some impact on those who participated, she added, and ideally, a facility could host a program, and a future study, on an ongoing basis.
“So often when we think about research with people who are incarcerated, we focus on recidivism,” said Toews. “This study shows there are so many other important things that happen beyond that.”
“We don’t always have to be thinking about what happens after release. People’s quality of life while they’re inside is also important, and how we create that environment for the sake of their well-being and relationships when they’re there will hopefully spill out when they’re released.”
Toews conducted the study with co-authors Julie Stevens, a landscape architecture professor at Iowa State who designs and builds holistic landscapes for an Iowa women’s prison, and Dr. Amy Wagenfeld, an occupational therapy professor then at Western Michigan. The team has been evaluating the impact of the prison landscape on women and staff.
The researchers say the results of this experience suggest value in expanding such activities, replicating the research and, above all, demonstrating how interaction with nature can help achieve therapeutic and rehabilitative goals.
Source: University of Washington