Nature Imagery

Humans live in environments that are increasingly removed from nature, which are often accompanied by stress and anxiety, emotions that decrease our potential to enjoy and fully experience life. 

We need nature for our physical and psychological well-being. But increasingly, many humans are living in environments that are removed from nature, leading to a lifestyle that is often accompanied by stress and anxiety, emotions that decrease our potential to enjoy and fully experience life.

Many studies have shown that experiences with real nature and exposure to nature imagery reduces stress, anxiety, and aggression, in a wide range of venues, including hospitals, schoolrooms, and assisted living centers.

science in prisons

One of the most violent and stressful human environments is inside correctional facilities, where real nature is almost entirely inaccessible to inmates and staff. With the growth of the incarcerated population of the USA, many corrections systems have created facilities and procedures to isolate certain inmates from the general prison population into intensive management units (IMUs) (also known as Supermax, administrative segregation, special housing).  The use of isolation now exists in 44 states, with an estimated 30,000 to 80,000 inmates. Within these isolation units, violent infractions are often prevalent, stress levels are high, and work tends to be more onerous for officers and other staff.

The use of nature imagery as a means of reducing stress and aggression has only minimally been used for reducing stress in prison environments, and nearly always with static images such as murals.

In 2013, staff at the Snake River Correctional Institution (SRCI) initiated a Nature Imagery Project and began a collaboration with Dr. Nalini Nadkarni (University of Utah). SRCI chose to provide nature-related video and sounds in an IMU as an intervention to help reduce stress and violence. Other collaborators in the fields of nature media, ecopsychology, and corrections research were invited to the project.

The literature on the stress-reducing properties of nature suggest that this approach could provide a low-cost way to improve behavior in the IMU and in venues that lack direct access to nature, such as senior assisted living centers, military bases, and refugee camps.

We describe project implementation and plans for research for an intervention that involves offering nature imagery in the form of nature films to a group of adult males in the Intensive Management Unit (IMU) of a state prison in Oregon. Due to the abundant evidence that exposure to nature is effective in reducing stress, violence, and aggression, and improving psychological states and cognitive skills, bringing nature imagery to inmates in IMUs may be beneficial. It is difficult or impossible to bring real nature (plants, soils, live animals) inside IMU facilities, but projecting images of nature inside the facility is a potentially cost-effective option that requires little infrastructure and staff time.

In 2013 at the Snake River Correctional Institution (SRCI) in Oregon, a committee (the “Forward-Thinking Committee”) composed of upper-level administrators, mental health professionals, captains, and officers was formed to investigate the challenges and benefits of providing nature imagery to reduce violence and improve behavior. The SRCI is a large (3,000 bed) state prison that has custody at all security levels, including five blocks of IMU and mental health units. The Forward-Thinking Committee consulted with experts in ecopsychology, evaluation of criminal behavior, and natural history/ecology to generate ideas for implementing the Nature Imagery Project in IMU settings.

In April 2013, SRCI staff installed a projector 4 m above the floor to project a nature video with sound onto the upper part of one wall of an IMU recreation room. Inmates were allowed the choice of viewing or not viewing a video during their regularly scheduled recreation time. Nature imagery videos were gathered by prison staff; topics included nature scenes such as ocean waves, forests, beaches, and other biomes. The recreation room with the projector was painted a light blue color and became known as the “Blue Room”. In a few cases, time in the Blue Room was offered at the discretion of an officer to calm an agitated inmate. Videos were never withheld as a punishment.

Approximately one year after SRCI staff began the Nature Imagery Project, a research team (based at University of Utah) was assembled to study the impact of the program on IMU inmates and prison staff. The team is currently awaiting research approvals from the University of Utah Institutional Review Board and the Oregon Department of Corrections. Once approvals are received, the team will use a mixed-methods approach to better understand and document the impacts of the nature imagery. A January 2015 research start date is projected.

Nalini Nadkarni – University of Utah

Tierney Thys – National Geographic

Patricia Hasbach – Northwest Ecotherapy, Lewis and Clark College

Emily Gaines – University of Utah

See press articles: (please link to the Science in Prisons media link here)

For publications about the Nature Imagery project, please click here.

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