Prison is one of the bleakest places created by humanity. It is sterile. Filled with fear, hostility, and anger. It is a hard place for people who did not know any better about living with people in society. They know nothing better in the prison environment.
Nature is known for its healing presence. Yet, there are places, like prisons, where access to nature is denied. Scientists wanted to find out what would happen if they brought nature to prisons. Using projectors, they beamed high quality pictures, one hour a day, into the rooms of prisoners who were locked up in solitary confinement. The results showed a reduction in infraction by 26%. In a prison, reduction in any violence among inmates is considered as good news.
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Prisoners already faced significant economic, social, or psychological burdens and struggles before they came to the incarceration. The prison system is an extreme environment. Based on solitary confinement and structured on rewards and punishment, the prison system increases stress, magnifies any psychological issues, and strains any positive relationship. It dims the possibility, hopes, and goals. Much of the network in prisons is built on negative social perceptions. Providing any opportunity to prisoners to integrate back into society is important.
Early research studies involving prisoners in conservation efforts showed positive effects. For example, prisoners can raise bees or frogs. They can also be involved in raising seedlings for planting in forest areas. These experiences give prisoners the opportunity to participate in productive and positive part of the society. It helps them feel involved in a larger purpose and participate in their own healing.
Nature is a powerful healer. Studies have shown that when patients in a hospital could see trees outside their windows, they experienced faster recovery. They needed fewer painkillers, experienced fewer complications from the surgery, and complained less frequently. When people with dementia saw flower gardens, they experienced more calmness. Pictures of natural scenery on walls has been shown to reduce violent outburst and calm residents.
Thus, nature heals people in many ways, and in a holistic way. People experience connection, relaxation, and changes to their emotions, physiology, and psychology. In high-security prison environments, there are no windows, rooms are small, spaces are tight, furniture is hard, and lights are bright and artificial. Introducing nature movies for one hour, during the relaxation time, provides much-needed perspective for the prison inmates. These efforts fall short of the ‘green prison’ experience in countries like Norway.
Called the Prison in the Woods Program, the Norwegian program at Halden is located in the middle of the woods. This maximum-security prison in Norway is behind a tall wall that holds a spruce-pine forest and the prison. To imitate the ‘normal’ life experiences, inmates in this prison can roam the woods without any guards. They shop for groceries from the prison grocery store, cook their own meals and go their jobs. The officers meet the inmates regularly over tea, lunch, or play board games as a part of their correctional duties. This helps the prisoners to practice their normal behaviors and prepare for their integration into society after their release.
While it is impossible to wipe out and counteract all the effects of solitary confinement or a prison experience, regular experience and immersion with nature helps to lessen the daily stressors. The impacts are reduced with even small doses of intervention.
In nature, many inmates see the beauty and possibility of life. And so it is for a lot of other people.