Can Nature Help Slow “Jail Churn?”

Published in Corrections Magazine

According to the Prison Policy Initiative, there are approximately 2.3 million people in U.S. correctional facilities. More than a quarter of these inmates – close to 600,000 – are in prison for nonviolent crimes such as drug crimes. The concern about many of these nonviolent inmates is that they often come right back to prison after release – referred to as “jail churn” or recidivism – but this time due to much more serious crime.

While it cannot be blamed on the correctional facility directly, it appears it is the prison environment these inmates are living in that often results in jail churn.

According to an article in this publication, Recidivism – Its Causes and Cure, by attorney John Dewar Gleissner,

“Prisoners get worse over time by learning sick prison values, the process “prisonization.” The gang culture thrives in prison, sometimes recruiting new members there or simply continuing previous gang membership. Our prisoners do not always receive drug rehabilitation or psychiatric counseling, and only a minority learns valuable trades or skills or obtains a GED in prison.”*

Gleissner adds that inactivity and boredom, along with violence, eventually take their toll on all prisoners including those in for nonviolent crimes. While he believes jail churn will never disappear, he suggests the following steps might at least slow it down:

  • Prisoners should support themselves in prison in anticipation of supporting themselves outside of prison.
  • Prisoners should earn their release, not just through the passage of time.
  • Education and skill training should be provided.
  • Religious activities should be encouraged from outside groups.

Stephen Ashkin, who helps all types of organizations become more environmentally responsible and operate more sustainably, suggests there may be more ways to slow jail churn and help get inmates back on their feet.

“We need to re-acquaint these inmates with the beauty of nature,” says Ashkin.  “This will help them realize there is a bigger picture to their lives. Studies have even found this can help reduce stress, anxiety, depression, and even violence in correctional facilities.”

For instance, Ashkin points to a study conducted by the University of Minnesota and another from the University of Illinois at Chicago. In the Minnesota study, the researchers concluded that “unpleasant environments can cause anxiety, sadness, and depression…. raising blood pressure, heart rates, muscle tension, and suppressing immune systems. [But] viewing scenes of nature reduces anger, fear, stress, and increases pleasant feelings.”

In the Illinois study, trees, vegetation, and green space were installed around one Chicago public housing project, but not around a second.  This second housing project was considered the “control group” for comparison reasons.

After a few months, the researchers went back to see if there was any difference in the ways people in the green housing project treated each other.  What they found was the following:

  • The residents in the “green” project had a closer and more positive feeling of unity with their neighbors.
  • More green residents took steps to help out others in their building when necessary.
  • There were lower levels of violence and aggression in the green complex.
  • In general, the green residents appeared to be better able to cope with life’s demands, inside and outside the housing project.

There were no changes in the control group complex.  The researchers determined that “when participants viewed nature scenes, the parts of the brain associated with empathy and love lit up, but when they viewed difficult urban scenes [such as in the control group complex] the parts of the brain associated with fear and anxiety were activated.”

So how does Ashkin believe we can re-acquaint inmates with nature?  Among his suggestions are the following:

  • Show more television programs about nature and animals living in zoos and remote areas.
  • Educate inmates about green issues; “green is all about protecting health – their own health – and the environment.”
  • Inmates must learn to practice sustainability; “Yes, sustainability is about using natural resources more efficiently, but one of the key elements of sustainability is ensuring people are treated fairly. This builds healthier communities, whether in prisons or on the outside.”

Ashkin adds that these steps and the ones mentioned earlier by Gleissner can have a real impact, not only on the inmates but on correctional staff as well. “These initiatives can help make prisons safer for everyone, reduce jail churn, and potentially save taxpayers some money as well.”

Robert Kravitz is a frequent writer for the correctional industry.


*May 30, 2012