In a recent blog I wrote about the dank, colorless, and claustrophobic environment of imprisonment. A one-word description of jail and prison decoration is “austere.” There’s no color. There’s certainly no charm. Jumpsuits are blue with gold lettering, and inmates dress in many shades of gray. Because colors adopted by gangs can cause flash-point combat, all primary colors and gradations thereof are restricted.
The lack of color hit me on my first day. The Orange County Jail is designed to disorientate and confuse. There are about six floors with an elevator like you’d experience in Macy’s department store. All the halls are the same color; the only photos are of the warden and the governor, and they’re in black and white. After a while, the brain craves a jolt of color. More specifically, the loss of color associated with nature nudges the depression nerve. I remember the dim feeling of lack of stimulation within the austerity of the prison confines. Give me a green field—a purple hydrangea, I’d think to myself.
I asked my friends and relatives to mail me color postcards of anything with nature. I received fields of green and colorful flowers. My sister sent me photos of Wave Hill, a public garden along the Hudson River in the Bronx, New York. I spent long, quiet mental pauses embedding myself in each picture, walking my mind through the striking floral gardens and focusing on the sparkling river in the background.
An August 2016 report by the American Psychological Association (APA) entitled Nature Imagery in Prisons Project: The Impact on Staff and Inmates in Solitary Confinement validated the effect of the lack of nature’s stimulation on me. APA researchers used videos and other images of nature to enhance the lives of inmates. The result was a reported 26 percent decrease in violent infractions by hardcore inmates.
APA’s press release Can Nature Videos Help Improve Prisoner Behavior? notes the following: “We need nature for our physical and psychological well-being,” said clinical psychotherapist Patricia H. Hasbach, PhD. “Although direct contact with real nature is most effective, studies have shown that even indirect nature exposure can provide temporary relief from psychological stress in daily life.”
Dr. Hasbach and fellow researchers studied a cellblock of forty-eight inmates in an Oregon maximum security prison over the period of a year. Content included images of bodies of water, a fire in a fireplace, trees, rivers, clouds, and more. The control group of inmates did not see the images.
The press release further quotes Dr. Hasbach: “Inmate surveys and case study interviews with inmates suggested that negative emotions and behaviors such as aggression, distress, irritability and nervousness were reduced following the viewing of videos and lasted for several hours post-viewing.”
The following important findings of the study have been reported:
- Prison staff concurred that viewing the videos “appeared to be a positive way to reduce violent behavior.”
- “Prisoners who viewed the videos had fewer disciplinary referrals than those who did not.”
- “Prison staff are also using the videos as a targeted intervention when they see warning signs that an inmate may be about to act out.”
- “‘Inmates who watched the nature videos committed 26 percent fewer violent infractions,’ said Hasbach. ‘This is equivalent to 13 fewer violent incidents over the year, a substantial reduction in real world conditions.’”
This is a specific area of prison reform that sighted people can understand by using their imagination.
Have you been in a government building with predominantly cement walls without any decorations? What was your reaction? Did you feel cold?
Why do you decorate your home with items that depict nature?
Would a world without the stimulation of color cause you to be depressed? If so, what would you do about it?
Do you think you’d become mentally embedded in photos of nature as I did?
I welcome my readers’ thoughts about this APA report. Its findings make intuitive sense. Prison designers and administrators know that the nakedness of prisons adds to inmate depression and violence. Austerity-caused emotions that lean toward inciting violence add credibility to this groundbreaking APA report.
Photo of Wave Hill courtesy of Bobbi Roseman Siegelbaum