Nature Videos in Solitary Confinement: Brilliant Idea or Band-Aid on a Bigger Problem?

Critics say programs that let prisoners watch nature videos might be calming but don’t address the root of the issue.

(Photo: Twitter)

Sep 10, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Rebecca McCray is a staff writer covering social justice. She is based in New York.

The setting sun, underwater seascapes, and mountain vistas: These are a few of the nature scenes prisoners in Washington state will soon be able to take in during the one hour a day they aren’t confined to a cell. Inspired by a program started at a prison in Oregon, the Washington Corrections Center in Shelton announced it was introducing a nature video program of its own in hopes of calming prisoners—particularly those in solitary confinement.

The program, called Blue Room, will be offered to maximum-security prisoners as an alternative to their recreation hour. Instead of exercising, inmates may choose to spend that hour in a blue-painted room surrounded by plants and watching nature videos projected on the wall.

“If there’s something that shows promise and is going to make it a better work environment for our staff and for offenders, that’s something we need to take seriously,” Steve Sinclair, assistant secretary of prisons for the state Department of Corrections, told The Associated Press.

Not everyone is convinced that blue rooms are the solution to what Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer recently called the “dehumanizing effect” of long-term isolation in prisons.

(Photo: Beth Nakamura/PrisonPhotography.org)

“Human beings need contact with nature in order to maintain their sense of reality and of being human,” Terry Kupers, a psychiatrist, professor, and expert on mental health in prisons, told TakePart. “Showing them scenes of nature by video makes a mockery of their very human needs and certainly does not ameliorate the damaging effects of isolation.”

Even if the blue room begins to address the sensory deprivation experienced by prisoners in solitary confinement, the program doesn’t tackle deeper systemic problems, critics say.

“We know that long-term isolation creates violence, unhappiness, and frustration,” Amy Fettig, an attorney with the National Prison Project of the ACLU and an expert on solitary confinement, told TakePart. “Showing nature videos to calm people is a nice idea, but it’s simply not enough to account for the harm of solitary confinement. These programs don’t question our premise that putting people in isolation is OK in the first place.”

(Photo: Beth Nakamura/PrisonPhotography.org)

Across the U.S., estimates suggest that more than 75,000 people are in solitary confinement. Data from the Vera Institute of Justice and other independent researchers shows the damaging psychological toll of isolation and finds that inmates kept in solitary are more likely to return to prison after their release. The practice can aggravate or foster mental illness, most disturbingly illustrated in the suicides of former inmates such as Kalief Browder, who killed himself earlier this year. Solitary strongly correlates to increased risk of suicide and self-harm.

The first and only other blue room program in the country was started at the Snake River Correctional Institute in Ontario, Oregon, in 2013. The idea came from Nalini Nadkarni, then an Evergreen State College professor, who gave a TED Talk about the positive effect images of nature could have on prisoners deprived of contact with the outdoors. Snake River officials contacted Nadkarni after viewing her talk and gave the program a shot. Almost immediately, the staff noticed “less chaos in the units,” according to Renee Smith, Snake River’s behavioral health services manager.

(Photo: Beth Nakamura/PrisonPhotography.org)

Stuart Grassian, a psychiatrist who studies the effects of solitary confinement, told TakePart that he believed some inmates in isolation might choose nature videos over recreation time but that they shouldn’t have to sacrifice exercise for time in the blue room. Nature videos would be a “token improvement” rather than a solution to the toxic effects of solitary.

“Nature videos make some sense—they can be calming,” Grassian said. “But wouldn’t a real attempt also incorporate teaching meditation or relaxation response training?”