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Kristin Murphy, Deseret News
Sarah Lapp explores a trail near Guardsman Pass on Wednesday, Sept. 20, 2017.

SALT LAKE CITY — If you've listened to the rain, walked underneath a tree or felt the sunshine in the past couple days, you've had more direct contact with nature than 5.3 million people living in the United States, according to a recent University of Utah study.

Think of people living in inner cities, urban housing, assisted living centers or prisons. They often only experience nature indirectly through pictures, videos or magazines, said Nalini Nadkarni, a U. researcher and biology professor.

But "when humans are exposed to nature, especially those who are deprived of nature, we see this soothing, reduction of stress and reduction of aggression and violence," she said. "Those are the kinds of things that calm us and make us feel like we’re home, we’re safe."

Countless researchers have studied the physical, spiritual and mental health benefits that comes with direct contact with the outdoors. But what about vicarious nature experiences? Does simply looking at a video or picture of nature also positively affect people's behaviors?

Nadkarni wanted to find out.

To test her theory, she turned to people in an extreme nature-bereft setting: inmates incarcerated in maximum-security prisons. These prisoners are surrounded by concrete walls every minute of the day, almost never encountering outside air or natural light.

"Maybe showing them nature imagery would also bring down stress, also bring down anxiety and reduce their sense of aggression and violence," Nadkarni said. "That was the core of the idea."

Her research was published in the September edition of an ecology and environment magazine "Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment."

Green to offset the gray

This isn't the first time Nadkarni brought a little green inside gray prison walls.

In 2003, she started an education program at minimum-security prisons in Washington. She gave science lectures and started conservation efforts with inmates, helping them raise endangered frogs and plants later taken into the wild.

The response to the program was overwhelmingly positive, Nadkarni said, and prisoners who felt "they can't do anything good" gained a connection to the outside world.

When she came to Utah, Nadkarni brought the nature programs to the Utah State Prison and Salt Lake County Jail.

"We thought that it was a solid program," said Victor Kersey, institutional programming division director at the Utah Department of Corrections.

The primary reason behind the lectures was to increase "employability opportunities," he added. The interactive lectures helped broaden the prisoner's horizons beyond the usual careers choices inmates lean toward, like culinary arts or construction.

But Nadkarni wanted to take her project even further, to people "incarcerated in the deeper, darker parts of the prison system," particularly those in restricted housing or solitary confinement.

"If we present nature imagery to people who are extremely and severely nature-deprived, then they would respond in a positive way," Nadkarni said. "They would feel calmer, less anxious, less aggressive and be less violent."

In 2010, officials at the maximum-security Snake River Correctional Institution in Oregon reached out to Nadkarni. She couldn't bring any lectures or outdoors material inside the prison, so she and her colleagues just brought in a projector and dozens of nature videos.

For one year, inmates in an intensive management unit could watch a nature video for 45 minutes a day in the "blue room" during their exercise time. Videos ranged from underwater scenes to forest landscapes to desert biomes to outer space panoramas.

The researchers surveyed the inmates and prison staff during the year, tracking the most popular videos and the attitudes of prisoners watching the videos and those who did not.

Behavioral changes

Solitary confinement can make inmates become withdrawn, unruly, suicidal or paranoid, the study stated, which are characteristics correlated with extreme sensory deprivation. But after watching the videos, both inmates and prison staff reported a change in the prisoners' behaviors.

"Even though they weren't going in nature and they weren’t handling plants and animals and soil, just watching these nature videos was able to calm them," Nadkarni said.

"The nature project helps me think clearer to know there is so much more beauty in this world then this prison," one inmate wrote. "When I first went into the Blue Room, I was like, 'Wow, how beautiful this world is.'"

Inmates stated they felt calmer after watching the videos, and those feelings lasted for hours afterward. More than 80 percent said exposure to the nature videos made their solitary confinement a little easier.

The videos also improved their relationships with staff members, guards and themselves.

"It is temporary respite from a horrible environment," one inmate wrote.

Prison staff were skeptical if the experiment would have any impact, and some felt the intervention would "coddle" the prisoners. But inmates who watched the nature videos several times a week committed significantly fewer violent infractions than other inmates.

Oregon prison staff even began asking inmates if they wanted more time in the blue room if inmates showed signs of agitation, further avoiding potential violent infractions.

"We looked at it as a pretty simple intervention to make a pretty significant difference," said Renee Smith, head of behavioral health at the Oregon facility. "By using this intervention, which is pretty cost-effective, we’re hopefully keeping somebody from being injured, (like) an inmate or a staff member."

The facility recently upgraded its blue room with a better projector and sound system. While the nature imagery is only available to the original cell block involved in the study, Smith hopes to create eight or more rooms for all prisoners in the facility to use.

"Hopefully, with those skills they’re learning with the blue room and with the other pro-social skills we teach while they’re incarcerated, they’ll come out and be better community members," she said. "I always say that to the inmates, I say, 'no offense, but I don’t want to see you again. I want to see you out in the community doing well, not in here.'"

"This is just a drop in the bucket in terms of trying to improve the whole system of mass incarceration," Nadkarni said.

The inmate's favorite video featured various landscapes in different countries, with music, animal life, and scenes with blue skies and open scenery.

"The men had been saying, 'We want to see those biggest landscapes. The most open landscapes,' because they feel they’re so enclosed and so captive in their concrete cells. They would like to see imagery that really takes them out of it," Nadkarni continued.

One staff member wrote: "When I heard about the concept, it made a lot of sense to me. I like being in nature, and I live in an area where I have a fantastic view of the valley. It is relaxing to me, so I figure how much more calming would it be to those that are locked down 23 hours a day."

Utah interest

Here in Utah, officials at the Utah Department of Corrections are excited and intrigued by the idea of a "blue room," said Maria Peterson, spokeswoman for the department.

"It’s one thing to implement something because it feels good. It’s another to have research to support it," she said.

The nature room program hasn't been brought to any Utah correction facilities yet, she continued, mostly because there isn't any room to spare for another program.

"The bottom line is these facilities were not built to rehabilitate. They’re so old, they were built to warehouse," Peterson said. "That’s not where corrections is today. We know more about what works and what doesn’t in corrections."

That's why officials are excited about the new Utah State Correctional Facility in Salt Lake City. All program options are on the table, Peterson said, including making room for a nature imagery program.

"The new facility is such an opportunity for us to build something that really does have the needs of the incarcerated individuals and public safety in mind," she said.

Nadkarni's research also inspired a new mural at the Olympus mental health facility at the Utah State Prison. The mural — painted across a brick wall — features mountains above a winding river, along a log cabin surrounded by trees, colorful bushes and wildlife.

The mural was painted by an inmate and recreational therapist at the facility. Officials hope the image improves the mental health of the inmates and lifts the atmosphere of the prison.

"One of the reasons these men and women are put in solitary confinement is because they cannot react person-to-person with other people," Nadkarni said. "But this is something I feel I can do to try to help a system that in many ways is a very difficult system, but maybe little by little we can improve.”

‘Nature toolkits’

Prisons nationwide are also reaching out to Nadkarni, wanting the nature interventions in other maximum-security prisons.

After Nadkarni began her research, another prison in Oregon started looping nature videos for adults with televisions in their cells. The Coffee Creek Correctional Center also provides group therapy sessions featuring nature imagery and sound.

Chad Naugle, the sustainability program manager for the Oregon Department of Corrections, said inmates often say they "took nature for granted" when they were not incarcerated.

"It kind of connects them back to nature and makes them appreciate them more," he said.

With help from a National Geographic Society grant, Nadkarni said the next step is compiling "nature toolkits." The kits have nature videos and education materials, along with evaluation materials to assess impact.

"(People) who might not even remember what it’s like to smell a flower or to hear the sound of running water, when you provide (nature) to them, they have the same kind of positive response that you and I have when we take a walk in the Wasatch Mountains," she said.

The research group also partnered with NASA to bring more images from outer space into the prisons.

"It isn’t something that’s a computer, it isn’t something that’s a sidewalk, it isn’t something that’s the hard edge of a human-made environment," Nadkarni added. "I think we all of us get that sense of calming and soothing."