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Colors are more than meet the eye. Anecdotally, bulls are angered by red; they charge the matador’s red cape—the muleta—on sight. But bulls are red/green color-blind. They see red and green as shades of gray or black. It’s the movement of the muleta, as it’s whipped around by the matador, that stokes the fury of the bull. In this instance, a color’s effect on the beast is just folklore.

With humans who are not color-blind, colors are helpful healers. Hospitals use different colors for healing. According to color-meanings.com, “Healing colors are the colors that influence mood, calm the nervous system and make the environments less provoking and [more] peace inducing.” According to the website, healing colors for hospitals are

  • Red induces vitality, stimulates energy, and can alleviate depression.
  • Orange radiates warmth and is associated with joy and happiness. [Orange is the New Black is not consistent with prison lore—wearing orange in the context of prison is far from joyful.]
  • Yellow can inspire creativity in people who feel sluggish or lethargic.
  • Green is a restful color that symbolizes growth and renewal.
  • Blue is linked to calm and serenity.
  • Purple/violet/lavender. [These colors] are linked with the cerebral and nervous systems.
  • Pink can be useful in hospitals and prisons to reduce erratic behavior.

Blue and Pink—Elements of Wonder and Awe in prison?

NBC News recently posted an article by Matthew Hutson entitled “Can ‘Blue Rooms’ Make Prisons Safer and More Humane?” The author’s working premise is that “prisons are notoriously stressful for inmates and staff alike—notoriously dangerous, too.” Hutson’s article refers to a study that suggests that nature scenes soothe inmates and help prevent violent outbursts.

Blue—Calm and Serenity

The blue in Hutson’s piece refers to a psychological study done by Dr. Nalini Nadkarni, an ecologist who wondered whether exposure to the natural world (the wild blue yonder) could have positive mental health benefits, as well as a reduction in violence, for prisoners in solitary confinement. In what the inmates called the blue room, videos were projected depicting vivid imagery of nature—forests, beaches, and Earth viewed from space were shown to half the inmates in a solitary confinement cellblock of a prison in Oregon. The eighteen-month study resulted in these significant findings:

People who infrequently—or never—spend time in nature will be deprived of the numerous physical and emotional benefits that contact with nature affords. We report on the effects of vicarious nature experiences (nature videos) provided to maximum-security prison inmates for one year, and compared their emotions and behaviors to inmates who were not offered such videos. Inmates who watched nature videos reported feeling significantly calmer, less irritable, and more empathetic, and committed 26% fewer violent infractions as compared to those who did not watch the videos. Prison staff corroborated these findings. This research reinforces the value of nature exposure as a powerful tool not only for corrections administrators, but also for urban planners and policy makers, to promote socially desirable behaviors.

The results of Nadkarni’s study were discussed in my post entitled Mother Nature Nurtures Inmates. In that post, I referenced the draft version of the study Nadkarni coauthored with the principal author, Patricia H. Hasbach, PhD:

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.

Work done by UC Berkeley psychologist Dacher Keltner, an expert in human psychology and emotion, gives credence to Hutson’s claims. Keltner explored the connection between watching nature videos and positive emotions such as happiness. Here is a short video of animals in their natural environments so you can test the premise for yourself. Keltner’s powerful observation in the recording is that “amazement, wonder, and awe are the foundations of a powerful form of real human happiness.”

Pink—Reduces Erratic Behavior

Medical Daily published an article by Justin Caba entitled “Color Psychology: Why Prisons Started Painting Their Walls Bubblegum Pink.” Caba writes, “The psychology of colors is an interesting field of study showing how certain colors can be used to trigger our emotions.” Color Matters backs him up, saying, “One of the most interesting examples of color effects is Baker-Miller Pink . . . also known as ‘Drunk tank pink.’” Interestingly, the name Baker-Miller pink comes from the names of two US naval officers who first tested the effects of the color in a naval correctional facility. Caba’s premise is that this tone of pink has been used to reduce hostility and calm violent, aggressive prisoners in custody. To visualize Baker-Miller pink, think Pepto-Bismol pink, which is formulated to neutralize situations.

There’s scientific evidence that may support this pink phenomenon and its effect on incarcerated people. However, a study published in the Journal of Orthomolecular Medicine by psychologists James Gilliam and David Unruh, at the University of Texas, Austin, Department of Special Education, found the influence of Baker-Miller pink on people inconclusive. Although they did not test the effect on incarcerated people, they used a population of fifty-four adults in a carefully constructed scientific environment.

The University of Texas study suggests the movement of the muleta phenomenon of the color-blind bull. The results of the study, in part, are as follows:

The results of research on the effects of Baker-Miller pink are conflicting and further research is indicated. However, in search of techniques and materials to utilize in the management of disruptive, disturbing, and violent behaviour, professionals should exercise caution in the adoption of methods and materials based upon the earlier reported positive effects of exposure to the Baker-Miller pink colour.

My experience is that prisons are architecturally calculated to confine and disorient. Their esthetic designs are grim and austere—there’s no color or vibrancy for the eyes, just sober, cement-gray cinder blocks structured and stacked as unfriendly as can be.

In prison, your favorite color is any color. The color of clothing is restricted because colors represent gang affiliations, so inmates’ clothing colors, within the general population, are limited to white and shades of gray.

Colors that do exist in the prison system are for identification purposes. Orange jumpsuits are not intended to signify joy and happiness—orange in this context means a convicted person is identified as being able to move in or around the prison yard for work, health care, or administrative purposes.

I advocate for color and blue-room exposures to nature being introduced into prison settings. There is enough evidence of the positive impact of both on people in forced confinement. It doesn’t take a scientific study to know that the loss of color and exposure to nature nudges people’s depression and hostility levels.

I remember feeling the lack of stimulation within the austerity of the prison confines—I’m sure others do, too. Have you spent an hour or more in a government building like the IRS or a DMV? I’m a firm believer that colors are more than what meets the eye and that exposure to nature is integral to people’s healthy human nature.

Please share your thoughts and opinions.

Image courtesy of 123rf

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