Prisons should help residents to reconnect with the natural world; there’s a growing body of evidence to show that working with plants, crops and animals boosts prisoners’ wellbeing and can even help them to rejoin society, writes Bonnie Welch
Search online for the words nature and wellbeing, and you’ll find extensive research from academics, health professionals, charities and policy makers to show that spending time in nature is good for our mental and physical health.
Health secretary Matt Hancock recently backed plans to expand so-called social prescribing – a growing NHS movement that recommends activities such as gardening and outdoor sports for some patients, as alternatives to medicine.
Mental health is a serious problem for many of the UK’s 78,000 prison inmates. According to a recent investigation, the number of prisoners put on suicide or self-harm watch has risen dramatically over the past decade.
Ministry of Justice data reveals that 27,389 people were at risk of suicide or self-harm in 2019 – an increase of almost 60 per cent on 2010.
The House of Commons called the record high numbers “a damning indictment of the current state of mental health of those in prison and the prison environment overall” and said that improving mental health is “an essential step to reducing re-offending and ensuring that those who are released from prison can rebuild their lives in the community.”
The recently published Dasgupta Review on the Economics of Biodiversity describes nature as “an indispensable system on which we all depend, and which must thrive for us to effectively respond to challenges, such as those posed by emerging diseases including Covid-19 and climate change.”
Conserving and restoring nature offers other positive externalities; creating jobs and improving social wellbeing. But the Dasgupta Review also cites an interesting case study, see The Greenhouse Project at the end of this article, that explores the benefits associated with nature-based prison programmes.
Several UK organisations offer gardening and horticultural training in prisons, seeking to improve prison residents’ health and wellbeing and support rehabilitation.
One example is based at Dartington Hall in Devon, where the LandWorks resettlement and rehabilitation project delivers outdoor training to groups of men from HMP Channings Wood. The men are either on release from prison on temporary licences, on probation, or being supervised under a community rehabilitation programme.
Image: LandWorks Chickens
The initiative aims to support the men, offering a route back into employment and the community for those in prison or at risk of going to prison.
Trainees typically spend six months gardening or learning woodwork, pottery or cooking. The project’s market garden supports a range of activities, from readying the ground, to sowing seeds, to nurturing growing plants and preparing produce for sale.
LandWorks charity manager Steve Bradford says mealtimes can have a particular impact on the trainees; the structure of the day and shared meals give the men the focus they need to plan activities and develop social skills.
Other prisons offer land-based activities on-site. At The Verne, a Category C prison on the island of Portland in Dorset, groundkeeper Michelle Glover is always on the lookout for ways to engage the residents in outdoor activities – from grass cutting and flower planting to pond-dipping and bird counts. “My biggest achievement is getting men involved in building different habitats for wildlife and I love watching them share the same enthusiasm I have,” Glover says.
With its sizeable garden and resident goats, kept for conservation grazing, The Verne has ample space to carry out training, and offers NVQ courses in horticulture.
One of the residents involved in the training, Mark, says he nurtures the garden – and the garden nurtures him. “The benefits for us and nature will always be positive for body, mind and the environment,” he says. “I found my inner Zen, just outside my window in that green space”.
Image: The Verne's southern entrance Credit: Ashley Smith
The Verne has a long waiting list of men wanting to join garden projects such as bat surveys, tree planting and looking after the resident chickens. Completing these secures a certificate of attendance. “It’s a good motivator and gives the lads a good sense of wellbeing and purpose” Glover says.
At the opposite end of the scale in terms of space is HMP Bristol, a Category B men’s prison tucked away in a residential suburb. Despite that constraint, the prison is finding ways to develop its outdoor space and nature-based education opportunities.
In December, the Sustainable Food Trust’s Harmony Project published the report An Action Plan for Greener Prisons, based on discussions with staff at HMP Bristol about ways to help the prisoners to connect with the natural world.
The report found that access to nature – including the opportunity to grow food or to work with animals – can improve mental wellbeing and reduce stress, anxiety and depression. Its recommendations for prisons such as Bristol that have limited access to land include increasing opportunities for horticultural education and cookery, animal husbandry and beekeeping, planting pollinator-friendly, native plants, and teaching prisoners to grow food on site for the prison kitchens.
So far this year, HMP Bristol has completed some major developments. It has created a new polytunnel to host horticultural training, planted a variety of flowers and herbs, created a new pond, introduced a flock of chickens and installed five beehives. The hives will be filled with bees and monitored by prison residents as part of an intervention programme.
This is all part of the prison’s aim to embed sustainability. Governor James Lucas sees “considerable benefits to prisoners and staff to considering a new, more environmental approach.”
This idea fits in with the Ministry of Justice’s Sustainable Operations Strategy of 2018, which notes that gardening, horticulture and biodiversity awareness programmes “increase self-efficacy and self-worth, decrease anxiety in offenders and reduce recidivism rates”.
The strategy describes “maximising opportunities to use biodiversity work to provide opportunities for offender rehabilitation” as a priority.
Not all nature-based education at HMP Bristol takes place outside. The prison team and The Harmony Project are working together to deliver a range of activities that use the natural world as a starting point to explore bigger issues; health and wellbeing, sustainability and culture.
By linking projects of learning to nature found within the prison walls, the project aims for residents to develop key skills for employment – but also to increase their sense of nature-connectedness, something research shows to boost our wellbeing.
HMP Bristol head of chaplaincy Muhammed Foulds is leading the project’s delivery. “There is so much that we can all learn from nature about how to live healthier and more sustainable lives,” he says.
“At HMP Bristol, our chaplaincy team is exploring the links between religion, ecology and culture and working with The Harmony Project on a range of educational projects linked to the natural world.
“We are also developing the prison’s green spaces and offering more opportunities for residents to connect with nature, to improve wellbeing, build self-confidence and develop new skills.”
Despite their different locations and sizes, these examples demonstrate that prison projects linked to the natural world have real potential. They offer purposeful and stimulating activities that boost physical and mental health – and could catalyse new approaches to tackle broader challenges that face the prison system, such as sustainability.
There is growing evidence to suggest that our increased separation from the natural world – due to urbanisation and industrial growth – causes many of the issues we face, from global pandemics and climate change to mental health crises and obesity.
With that in mind, we should not underestimate the transformative power of taking new approaches to education – finding ways to reconnect people across society to the natural world.
It is perhaps in our prisons that this separation from nature is at its most extreme. Isn’t it time we let the natural world inspire change?
Bonnie Welch is a project manager for the Sustainable Food Trust and co-author of An Action Plan for Greener Prisons
THE GREEN-HOUSE PROJECT
The Dasgupta Review mentions nature-based solutions at Riker’s Island, New York City’s main prison and one of the biggest penal colonies in the world, which has established a green prison programme to enable prisoners to grow and care for plants. The prison also offers internships to former inmates in parks and gardens.
Of those who attend what is now known as the Green-House Programme, just 10 per cent of those paroled returned to prison within three years. California has an average reoffending rate of nearly 65 per cent over the same period.
A CALMING INFLUENCE?
A recent study by researchers at the University of Birmingham and Utrecht University mapped the percentage of green space in prisons across England and Wales and compared it with incidents of self-harm, prisoner assaults on staff and violence between prisoners.
It concluded that a 10 per cent increase in prison green space could reduce violence between prisoners by 6.6 per cent, self-harm by 3.5 per cent and assaults on staff by 3.2 per cent.
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