Nature Deficit and the Potential of Green Prison Programs to Transform U.S. Prisons

By Gabrielle Grant

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Photo by T. Q. on Unsplash

The United States is the world’s leader in incarceration. The incarceration rate per 100,000 people is 670, and there are currently 2.2 million people in our nation’s prisons and jails (The Sentencing Project). Over the past 40 years, the US has begun sending more people to prison for longer terms than ever before. Furthermore, the recidivism rates in the United States, or the number of people who relapse into criminal behavior, are disturbingly high. According to the National Institute of Justice, within five years of their release, 76 percent of released prisoners were rearrested. Of those, more than half were rearrested by the end of their first year out of prison (NIJ).

At the same time, the world is experiencing a shift towards an ever-more urbanized population. Currently, over half of the world lives in urban areas, and by 2050, this population is expected to leap to 70 percent (Bratman). As urbanization increases, people’s amount of nature experience continues to decrease. This deprivation from nature can have profound psychological effects, including affecting people’s mood and behaviors.

While in prison, inmates have little, if any, access to nature. The environment of prisons is often harsh, bleak, and isolating. Inmates are given recreation time in indoor gymnasiums in place of outdoor recreation. In the most extreme of cases, prisons deprive inmates of outdoor access for days, weeks, or even months at a time. The Southern Center for Human Rights, a nonprofit organization that challenges human rights violations in prisons and jails as well as provides legal representation to individuals who cannot afford it or who are facing the death penalty, outlines some of the conditions that prisoners in the South live in. For example, in a 1999 decision, federal courts in Alabama and Georgia held that “the complete denial [to prisoners] of outdoor exercise, although harsh, [does] not violate the Eighth Amendment.” In one extreme circumstance, a prisoner in a maximum-security prison in the 11th circuit was denied out-of-cell exercise time for eight years. Therefore, in some states in the US, denying someone not only access to the outdoors, but even access to the rest of the prison beyond their cell, is not considered to be cruel punishment (Southern Center for Human Rights).

Recently, there has been a rise in “green prison programs”-- programs that promote access to nature and sustainability within the corrections industry. These programs provide nature-based therapy to prisoners under the guidance of professionals. The programs often include gardening activities such as landscaping, gardening, and learning about environmental stewardship. Major prisons, such as Riker’s Island in New York, Ohio State Prisons, and Sustainability in Prisons program in Washington, have implemented these programs.

The rise of green prison programs is suggesting that there may be a way to reduce a person’s

chances of returning to prison before they even get out. Green prison programs are also

extending to programs that facilitate inmates’ transitions out of prison through nature retreats and outdoor activity. Additionally, transitional programs that help formerly incarcerated individuals have been implementing time outdoors through gardening, horticulture, fishing, and more with an extremely high degree of success.

To understand this issue, I consulted both popular media covering the rise of urban garden and green prison programs as well as research in the fields of psychology, criminology, ecology, and sociology and their intersection. The popular media includes articles from popular publications such as The New York Times and Outside Magazine that report on the benefits of nature for the incarcerated with firsthand accounts from inmates or former inmates. These articles helped me to gain firsthand descriptions of these programs from the people they are trying to help as well as understand what aspects of these programs are most appealing to the public. Through my research of popular media, I found that the increasing popularity of urban gardening made it a focus of many of the articles. The studies I consulted regarding the psychological effects of nature provided necessary background information for understanding the overall benefits of nature on the brain before narrowing my focus to its benefits for prisoners. I drew upon both types of sources to understand the implications of nature deficit in prisons and the potential of green prison programs to alleviate those negative effects.

Furthermore, the rising rate of incarceration in the United States exacerbates these existing problems. One of the primary challenges that comes with mass incarceration is the sheer cost of maintaining so many prisoners in correctional facilities. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the cost of mass incarceration in the United States is $81 billion per year. This money goes to paying public employees in prison, feeding prisoners, utilities, and the agencies that run correctional facilities (Lopez). However, the Prison Policy Initiative claims that this is an underestimate as it does not include other factors of the criminal justice system such as courts, parole and probation agencies, prosecutors, etc. With all of this included, the cost of mass incarceration is a shocking $182 billion dollars per year for private individuals as well as local, state, and federal governments (Lopez).

In addition to having one of the largest numbers of prisoners in the world, the United States also leads in recidivism rates- the percentage of prisoners who commit another crime and return to prison after their release. A 9-year study conducted by the Bureau of Justice Statistics from 2005 to 2014 found that 83% of state prisoners across 30 states released in 2005 had been rearrested at least once by 2014. Within one year of their release, 44% of prisoners had been arrested again (Alpher and Markman). Interestingly, individuals convicted of property crime are much more likely to recommit than those who commit serious crimes, suggesting that individuals are committing crimes because they do not see another viable way of getting the money they need. This points to the larger issue of prisoners feeling unequipped to re-enter society upon their release from prison (California Innocence Project).

These statistics are particularly concerning because they reveal that prisons are not fulfilling their purpose of correcting people’s mistakes and ensuring those mistakes are not repeated. If prisoners are going to recommit crimes shortly after their release, then their time in prison has been ineffective and is not making society safer. Prisons with programs such as anger management, vocational skills training, substance abuse, educational opportunities, and trauma support groups were much more successful in getting inmates to stay out of prison upon their release. Unfortunately, many states are stripping away funding from these crucial rehabilitation programs because of the idea that these programs denote that the state is not being tough enough on crime. In fact, this could not be further from the truth, and stripping prisons of funding for rehabilitation programs contributes to the vicious cycle that leads individuals to be repeat offenders (NIJ).

The United States is also in the middle of a mental health crisis among jail and prison inmates. Compared to the overall population, individuals who have been involved in the criminal justice system are significantly more likely to have a history of mental illness, including trauma from abuse as well as psychotic illness and depression (Center for Prisoner Health and Human Rights). Around the world, it has been found that 89% of inmates have depressive symptoms and 74% have stress-related symptoms. Within the United States, over half of prison and jail inmates have diagnosable symptoms of mental illness, and the suicide rates in detention facilities are three times greater than that of the general population (Söderlund and Newman).

Unfortunately, our nation’s prisons and jails are severely lacking in providing sufficient mental health treatment for struggling inmates. Not only do incarcerated individuals lack quality access to treatment, mental health issues can make inmates a target in prisons. For example, mentally ill inmates are disproportionately placed in solitary confinement, which only serves to exacerbate symptoms by isolating them from contact with other people and the outdoors. Additionally, only about one in three state prisoners and one in six jail inmates in need of mental health treatment received it (Center for Prisoner Health and Human Rights).

While mental illness is caused by a variety of factors, including a person’s upbringing, genetics, and previous traumatic experiences, lack of exposure to nature can exacerbate existing

symptoms of mental illness. In a study conducted by the Stanford University Woods Institute for the Environment, it was found that people living in cities have a 20 percent higher risk of anxiety disorders and a 40 percent higher risk of mood disorders as compared to people living in rural areas (Jordan). Considering that prisoners live in conditions much further removed from nature than that of the average city dweller, symptoms of anxiety and mood disorders are almost certainly worsened by lack of exposure to nature.

With the multitude of challenges that correctional facilities are facing, it is easy to ask why rehabilitation programs have not already been implemented to address some of these issues. In reality, an array of rehabilitation techniques have been attempted in the past, none with much success. As sociologists Douglas Lipton, Robert Martinson, and Judith Wilks concluded in their book, The Effectiveness of Correctional Treatment, of the rehabilitation methods employed at the time, none were effective. Strategies such as parole, probation, and education programs were only marginally effective and did not do much to reduce recidivism (Lipton, Martinson, and Wilks). After their broad examination of rehabilitation strategies, Lipton, Martinson, and Wilks came up with abstract principles of what would make a rehabilitation program successful. These principles were: behavior that has been rewarding (such as property crime) will be repeated, even if punished, unless an alternative behavior proves more rewarding, and social integration is a necessary part of rehabilitation programs (Lipton, Martinson, and Wilks 150). While this book concludes that there are no current effective rehabilitation strategies, it fails to examine nature-based rehabilitation programs, which were just beginning to be explored when the book was published.

Since the 1990s, there has been a rise in the number of green prison programs in the United States. These programs, which have been implemented across the U.S. with a variety of techniques, all operate under the same goal of getting prisoners in nature under the guidance of professionals. Typically, prisoners engage in activities such as landscaping, green roof gardening, cultivating plants, and learning about environmental stewardship. Additionally, most programs combine these activities with vocational training and teaching of social skills, such as how to work with others in groups (Van Der Linden). As a whole, these programs have proven to be extremely effective in improving the mental health of inmates and lowering recidivism rates, which in turn can help alleviate some of the costs of mass incarceration.

It has been well documented that spending time in the outdoors is beneficial for one’s mental health. For example, a 2015 study took a group of urban residents and had some of them go on a 90-minute walk in nature and others go for a 90-minute urban walk. Participants in the study who went on the nature walk showed reductions in rumination (self-referential thought that may increase mental illnesses such as depression and anxiety) and sgPFC activity (the area of the brain where rumination occurs), whereas participants on the urban walk did not (Bratman).

If exposure to nature can have this profound of an effect on urban city dwellers, imagine the effect it can have on prisoners who often do not even step foot outside for weeks, much less have the opportunity to walk around outside their cell at all for 90 minutes, much less 90 minutes in nature. Prisoners likely already have high levels of rumination and are at increased risk for developing mental illness, and this is compounded by the fact that they have very little access to the outdoors in general, much less what would be considered nature vs an urban environment.

Just as spending time outside has been proven to improve a person’s mental health, evidence suggests that humans benefit greatly from not just being in nature, but physically interacting with

it. The Biophilia hypothesis, coined by Nobel Prize-winning biologist E.O. Wilson, is the idea that humans have an innate need to connect with other life forms, and if we repress this innate desire, we will undoubtedly act violently and damage our own mental health. According to Wilson’s hypothesis, this need to connect with nature fulfills our intellectual, spiritual, and aesthetic cravings (Söderlund and Newman).

This hypothesis is especially applicable to prisoners because it suggests that interacting with nature could be the key to health, well-being, and avoidance of violence. In addition, the theory is supported by not only psychological evidence, but physiological evidence as well. Research has shown that exposure to nature reduces heart rate variability, decreases blood pressure, lowers cortisol (a stress hormone), and increases parasympathetic nervous system activity. In turn, these responses contribute to improved cognitive functioning, lower stress levels, and increased learning rates (Söderlund and Newman).

Linda Remy, a psychologist at the University of California, San Francisco, has documented the benefits of nature-based therapy through her 20-year study of the San Francisco Sheriff’s Department horticultural therapy program. From 1991 to 2008, Remy observed the physiological impact on inmates of working in an organic garden at San Francisco County Jails from 8am to 2pm, five days a week. Inmates who choose to partake in the program spend their days learning about organic gardening techniques, understanding how gardening can benefit the health of their communities, and physically working in the garden. Remy found that participants in the program saw a reduction in symptoms of depression, were more successful at overcoming substance abuse issues, and had increased feelings of self-worth as compared to inmates who did not participate (Rice and Remy 181). The program also greatly benefited the surrounding community as all produce and flowers grown in the garden were donated to local food shelters. As a result, prisoners not only felt more connected to nature but to their community as a whole and had the sense that they were contributing to society even within the walls of a prison.

Additionally, nature-based therapy programs have proven extremely effective for reducing recidivism. The decision for recently released inmates to commit another crime is influenced by a variety of economic, sociological, and psychological factors, many of which are directly contrasted with the benefits of nature-based therapy. For example, Insight Garden Program, which began with four raised garden beds at San Quentin State Prison in California and has now expanded to eight prisons, has seen tremendous success in reducing recidivism. In addition to psychological benefits, inmates learn skills that can be translated to landscaping jobs that have entry-level wages of $17.50 per hour in the state of California (Waitkus). Most impressively, the program reports that among its graduates, the recidivism rate is 10% over five years - significantly lower than the state average of 40% for the same amount of time (Waitkus). This statistic is similarly reflected in other green prison programs, such as Riker’s Island, where the one year re-conviction rate is 14% among inmates who participated in the green prison program as compared to a 65% re-conviction rate among those who did not (Van Der Linden). Overall, it is clear that green prison programs are proving extremely effective in equipping inmates with the tools to be successful and avoid returning to prison upon their release.

In turn, this reduction of recidivism reduces the yearly cost of operating prisons. In the case of Insight Garden Program, the reduction in recidivism rates has saved the state of California approximately $40 million by keeping former inmates out of jail, thus saving the state the cost of keeping that person in a correctional facility (Waitkus). Nationwide, it costs an average of $47,421 to keep a person in jail for one year (National Institute of Justice). Thus, it is easy to see how lowering recidivism rates would be directly beneficial to a state’s economy by saving taxpayers and governments from the expense of imprisonment.

The problem of mass incarceration is complex, as is our changing world in which both people on the inside and outside of correctional facilities become increasingly removed from nature. However, green prison programs provide hope for addressing some of the challenges of mass incarceration, including high cost, high recidivism rates, and mental health struggles among inmates. Green prison programs have seen success across the nation with the common elements of cooperation from inmates, support from professionals, and of course, substantial time spent in nature, whether it be in landscaping, gardening, or another activity.

In recent years, prison reform has been a prominent issue among legislators on Capitol Hill. Institutions such as Congress and the Department of Justice are seriously examining the state of mass incarceration in the United States and the implications it has for our society. As our nation fights the ongoing battle of prison reform, legislators should seriously consider implementing standardized green prison programs in prisons and jails across the country. In doing so, prisons could be transformed from an ineffective, isolating form of punishment into a place that is actually beneficial for prisoners and productive for society. By implementing green prison programs, states could save taxpayers thousands of dollars each year, not to mention the positive economic growth generated from the presence of formerly incarcerated individuals in the workforce. Green prison programs could be the missing link in the issue of prison reform- it is time to connect the dots and implement nature-based rehabilitation programs nationwide, for the good of prisoners and society as a whole.