A new project is exploring the benefits of showing nature documentaries and videos in the dog-eat-dog world of maximum-security prisons. The findings, presented at a conference by the American Psychological Association on Friday, have already shown some dramatic effects on the mood of the prison and the well-being of prison officers.
“We need nature for our physical and psychological well-being,” clinical psychotherapist Dr Patricia Hasbach, the lead researcher, said in a statement. “Although direct contact with real nature is most effective, studies have shown that even indirect nature exposure can provide temporary relief from psychological stress in daily life.”
The project looked at 48 inmates in a cellblock at the Snake River Correctional Institution, the largest prison in Oregon. During the experiment, half of the prisoners had access to nature videos between three to four times a week during their “indoor recreation time.” The content ranged from views of Earth from space, cloud fly-throughs, and scenes from aquariums, oceans, mountain ranges, or forests. The others had no access to the videos.
“We found that inmates who watched nature videos committed 26% fewer violent infractions. This is equivalent to 13 fewer violent incidents over the year, a substantial reduction in real world conditions, since nearly all such events result in injuries to inmates or officers,” explained Dr Hasbach.
Inmates were also allowed to choose which video was played and surveys recorded their popularity. Among the favorites, in order, were beaches, mountains, and oceans. The researchers also pointed to numerous other studies that have suggested that nature videos are far more effective at boosting morale in healthcare facilities, compared to urban imagery, art, or daytime television.
The researchers said in an ideal setting they would back this up with physiological measurements, such as heart rates or MRIs, but they were not able to due to safety concerns. They were, however, able to conduct in-depth interviews with inmates and prison staff.
Many staff members admitted they were initially skeptical of the idea, yet within a few months they were nearly all convinced by its benefits. In the interviews, all the prison staff members reported notably calmer inmates, less violent behavior, fewer violent incidents, and fewer angry outbursts. Some also reported fewer incidences of self-harm among inmates.
Overall, 76 percent said their workload had become easier and just under 70 percent said the project had improved their relationship with inmates.
The dose of nature had a similarly positive effect on the inmates. One inmate reflected on the effect of viewing the videos in the interviews: "I thought about what I would do if I could... I wonder if there were bears in those mountains. I wonder what I'll do when I'm out of here. I tell my kids we're going camping."
The study is only on a small-scale and the researchers were unable to control many of the variables because of the prison setting. Nevertheless, the project is now being rolled out across other units within Snake River Correctional Institution, and numerous other US prisons have shown interest in introducing the program.
[H/T: Live Science]