The healing power of nature is well established. People who garden, take frequent hikes or regularly play with a dog or cat experience the benefits firsthand. Time spent with nature is known to improve mental health, increase physical health and reduce stress.
A professor of social work and criminal justice at the University of Washington Tacoma wants to see that knowledge put to work in state prisons, to help them get better results.
“Nature is a necessity. It’s not a luxury,” said assistant professor Barb Toews. Most inmates and some corrections staff suffer from elevated levels of anger and stress, she says. These are exacerbated by sterile environments that often lack even a view of greenery.
Toews says the reverse also is true.
“Nature can actually mitigate that,” she said. “Research that has been done on the role of nature and the impact of nature in prisons finds that for incarcerated people, they have fewer major illnesses and fewer sick calls. They have improved mental health. They have less aggressive behavior. And I think most importantly, they have reduced recidivism when they get home.”
And relatively inexpensive interventions can make a difference, she added. Toews co-authored a recent study at a women’s prison in Iowa, looking at the impact of time spent re-potting house plants.
“This one hour simple transplanting party – something that many people do on a Saturday afternoon – actually led to a mood boost for the women," she said. "They were happier, calmer and more peaceful after the party than they were beforehand.”
Toews says more work is needed to understand the exact source of the mood boost, but with other research showing all the benefits of nature, she believes it can be an effective tool to improve outcomes in correctional settings. It’s good for inmates, as well as staff.
This year, Toews is developing an intervention for corrections officers at the Washington Corrections Center for Women, a correctional facility in Gig Harbor.