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More trees in prison ‘could lead to fewer cases of self-harm and violence’

Sam Hancock
·3-min read
A prison’s green space was calculated using data and aerial photographs to determine its perimeter and contents (iStock)
A prison’s green space was calculated using data and aerial photographs to determine its perimeter and contents (iStock)

Increasing the amount of grass, bushes and trees inside prisons could lead to less incidents of self-harm and prisoner violence, researchers have found.

Experts at the University of Birmingham and Utrecht University compared the percentage of green space, in at least 90 of England and Wales’ prisons, with cases of self-harm, prisoner-on-prisoner violence and assaults on staff – to ascertain how influential the presence of nature inside prisons could be at decreasing destructive behaviour.

The study, published this week in the Annals of the American Association of Geographers journal, 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.

While a string of variables were considered such as the age of prisons, security level, population density, and if they housed men, women or youth offenders, the academics still suggested facilities with more green space had fewer occurrences of all three issues.

Self-inflicted deaths are 8.6 times more likely in prison than among the general population, according to charity and campaign group the Prison Reform Trust.

The latest government figures show that over 61,000 incidents of self-harm took place in English and Welsh prisons in the 12 months to September 2019. Over the same period, there were more than 33,000 incidents of violence between prisoners, and more than 10,000 assaults on staff.

Speaking to The Independent, lead author of the new study, Professor Dominique Moran, said: “These findings show that presence of green space in prisons reduces self-harm and violence. Nature contact is known to be calming, reducing stress and tension, and this may be the reason why green space has these effects in prisons.

“Even when we control for other important factors (such as prison type, size, age, level of crowding, gender) we find that the effect of green space remains robust.”

A prison’s green space was calculated using Mastermap data and aerial photographs, which were imported to a system called ArcGIS. This allowed researchers to determine the perimeters for each prison and work out which areas inside the line were natural.

The report, which used prison data from 2014-18 to draw its conclusions, said prisoners that had access to more “vegetated land” were likely to have higher “levels of wellbeing”.

During coronavirus, though, when prisoners are confined to their cells for longer and given less contact time, access to these spaces is harder to get. According to Prof Moran, this is another reason prisons should invest into expanding or creating natural patches of land.

“Our research draws on data from before the covid pandemic, but with prisoners now confined to cells for longer periods to limit the spread of the virus, green views from cells are likely to be particularly crucial,” she said.

The research has now been shared with the Ministry of Justice which Prof Moran said she hopes will “inform changes in new and existing prisons to maximise green space wherever possible”.

“Understandably, policy makers need an evidence base for potentially expensive design changes. These findings are therefore important because they provide, for the first time, a statistically robust evidence base for the effects of green space in prisons,” she added.

If you are experiencing feelings of distress and isolation, or are struggling to cope, The Samaritans offers support; you can speak to someone for free over the phone, in confidence, on 116 123 (UK and ROI), email, or visit the Samaritans website to find details of your nearest branch.

For services local to you, the national mental health database – Hub of Hope – allows you to enter your postcode to search for organisations and charities who offer mental health advice and support in your area.

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