BY BRIAN LIBBY
In yesterday's Oregonian, reporter Bryan Denson looked at how a new initiative at the Snake River Correctional Institution near Ontario is demonstrating how access to nature can change the behavior of even our most hardened criminals, and how Oregon prisons could bring pioneering reform to prison design.
For the 216 inmates housed in solitary confinement at Snake River due to violent, combative, or escape-prone tendency, 23 hours a day (save for one hour of exercise in barren prison yards) are spent in small, windowless, claustrophobic enclosures. Though their own behavior may have got them there, solitary confinement seems to only make their mental state worse.
"I've seen over the years how an inmate will come into the facility, and they'll almost appear to be completely normal," Randy Gilbertson, head of Snake River's solitary confinement told Denson. "After a phase of isolation, those guys – especially those guys with mental health issues – tend to decompensate. They break down and go a different route. And it brings out a whole different person in them." A more violent person.
But now, prisoners in Snake River solitary have been given a brief mental respite that has helped improve behavior and morale. In the Blue Room, prisoners are shown still and video images of nature such as babbling brooks, tropical beaches or wind-swept forests. And the effects have been unmistakable: those sent to solitary confinement who didn't get the Blue Room therapy posted more referrals for disciplinary infractions, while those allowed to use the Blue Room showed a decrease.
Snake River's Blue Room experiment happened when one of the prison's officials saw a TED talk by forest ecologist Nalini Nadkarni, who now teaches at the University of Utah. Nadkarni had collaborated with Washington state prison officials on a similar pilot program, which exposed inmates to nature, either projected imagery or even small excursions to help re-introduce endangered animals and plants to the wild. But what Snake River officials also stumbled upon, by extension, was a growing body of research data demonstrating that human psysiology is significantly impacted by how much access we have to nature.
Some of this we've known intuitively or even scientifically for a while: that natural light helps schoolchildren earn higher average test scores and office workers take fewer breaks and sick leave, or that hospital patients have shorter stays and need less pain medication when they have access to nature and views, the latter of which Michael Kimmelman explores in today's New York Times.
But biophilia goes beyond natural light and time amongst natural settings. Earlier this year while writing an article for the American Society of Interior Designers' magazine, ICON, I learned that there are several tenets of biophilia and human response.
Human wakefulness and productivity begin in the autonomic nervous system’s contrasting sympathetic and parasympathetic systems. The sympathetic system stimulates us when quick response is needed—a “fight or flight” mechanism. The parasympathetic system relaxes us, decreasing stress and increasing concentration. Regular access to a dynamic array of natural settings and spaces keeps the battery-recharging parasympathetic balanced with the crisis-mode sympathetic system.
A report by Terrapin Bright Green called "The Economics of Biophilia" denotes three tenets: “Nature in the Space,” “Natural Analogues,” and “Nature of the Space.”
“Nature in the Space” means incorporating plants and water features inside and out, whether it’s potted plants inside or courtyard gardens and fountains visible outside of a building. The idea is to provide non-rhythmic visual connections: something that will catch the eye for a split-second of stimulating distraction. "Nature in the Space” includes access to fresh air, whether indoors or out.
Sometimes the mind can be tricked into getting the same effect as nature (or at least a diluted version of it) from “Natural Analogues,” a series of biomorphic forms and patterns found in images of nature that can, to a lesser but still measurable degree, provide a similar response to being outside. Sometimes even natural surfaces in an interior space such as wood can also prompt a response. “The body does know the difference,” Bill Browning, a principal with Terrapin Bright Green, told me for the ICON story, “but where there’s no other option, simulated nature has a beneficial impact.”
That's where the Blue Room slideshows come in. It turns out that while being in nature is unsurprisingly the best means of experiencing nature, viewing images of nature can have a real effect.
"Dr. Nadkarni believes Snake River Correctional Institution is the first in the nation to bring nature imagery to inmates in solitary confinement," Denson told me by email. "Other prisons in Oregon are interested in replicating the Blue Room – but it’s too early for that. Dr. Nadkarni and others want to see whether the Blue Room strategy works. If research backs up the hypothesis that it does, I’m almost certain the Oregon Department of Corrections would bring nature imagery to all of its prisoners in solitary housing."
Again, though, the research is already there. It's already proven. In an ideal world, I would have hoped that Oregon corrections officials had someone on staff who was on top of the latest behavioral research and was seeking to employ it. In the case of the Snake River Correctional Institution, there was no such person, but thankfully there were still people in power who saw Nadkarni's TED talk.
I asked Denson to tell me his general impressions of Snake River. "I toured three eastern Oregon prisons with photojournalist Beth Nakamura earlier this summer," he said. "For me, walking into the medium-security institutions was a bit like walking through the guts of an American shopping mall – except there was nothing for sale. They were wide hallways lit by stark fluorescent lights, a visual tedium broken up by the occasional inmate-produced mural. It occurs to me as I write this that many of those murals featured nature scenes. The most sensory-deprived of the prisons was Two Rivers Correctional Institution, near Umatilla, Oregon, which was designed as a big rectangle. Each cellblock there has its own seating and eating areas, with a recreation yard that – on sunny days – pours sunlight onto grassy yards and basketball courts. But you can’t see the horizon from these rec yards, only the sky. Every now and again, a bird might pass by, or an airplane, but you’re cut off from little else in the way of imagery, natural or otherwise. I can only imagine the excitement inmates might feel when a thunderstorm passes by, or snow."
Obviously no one wants to coddle prisoners, and talk like this about giving prisoners access to nature could easily prompt conservatives to make accusations of not being tough enough. When I was growing up in McMinnville, I remember many townspeople complaining that the federal prison being constructed at the time near Sheridan was somehow a "Club Fed" because its architecture consisted of several small cottages with Spanish style roofs. Yet the aim of prisons is reform, not revenge, and it's clear that a combination of architecture and access to nature can help the rehabilitation process, or at least do something to prevent prisoners to be more hardened when they're released than when they went into the facility. In other words, investments like the Blue Room (which only cost about $1,500 according to Denson's article) easily pay for themselves.
I'd like to see not only a Blue Room in solitary confinement at every prison, but aspects of biophilic design incorporated throughout these facilities. Giving a murderer a view of Mt. Hood won't reverse the crime and it may not stop any one individual from being violent or dangerous, but in the long run it definitely helps prisoners retain or grow their sense of humanity. And that's good for everyone except the crime-obsessed fearmongers who have led to our near police state, where ordinary citizens and even journalists can be attacked by militaristic authorities for exercising their constitutional rights.
"One thing I found is that inmates constantly seek beauty," Denson added. "Some of the artwork done in the prison metal and wood shops I visited was astounding. I remember one inmate who was serving a long prison term. He had created these magnificent metal fish. One was a life-size marlin. He had taken a blowtorch of some kind to “paint” deep shades of blue into the metal. I just kept thinking, “How can men kept away from the natural world so long create such beauty?” I think perhaps the answer is that you can’t take that away from humans. They carry it with them even into the worst corners of life. In short, I think the overall architecture of prisons keeps the public safe but robs prisoners of the beauty those of us on the other side of the razor wire take for granted."