Randy Lyhus

When a new inmate is booked into jail, it can be a pretty dismal experience for everyone involved. The prisoner may be angry or despondent, suffering from acute mental stress or illness, or under the influence of drugs or alcohol. On-duty staff attending to prisoner intake may feel tired or threatened (or both). It’s a combustible atmosphere, to be sure, and in the early hours and days of a prisoner’s term, concepts such as “rehabilitation” and “redemption” may not take hold.

At a Northern California jail, however, a relatively simple intervention has already improved conditions for staff and inmates. Based on research that illustrates the calming effects of simulated nature views, with support from the Academy of Architecture for Justice (AAJ) and the National Institute of Corrections, the Sonoma County Main Adult Detention Facility now boasts a large-scale photo mural of bucolic grassland on one wall of the booking area. Just six weeks after the mural was installed, the team of researchers—led by Jay Farbstein, FAIA, Melissa Farling, AIA, and Polytechnic Institute of New York University environmental psychology professor Richard Wener, with assistance from arts and neuroscience researchers Upali Nanda and John Sollers—found measurable reductions in stress levels among both groups.

Since the 1980s, studies have shown that medical patients with views of nature—whether real (as in a garden) or simulated (as in a photographic mural)—experience accelerated recovery, lower blood pressure, and less anxiety. In the prison setting, at least one study has similarly demonstrated that prisoners with external views of nature have lower blood pressure than those who view only internal courtyards.

In October 2006, a group of architects, corrections administrators, and neuroscientists gathered to discuss the growing body of evidence that suggests that correctional environments affect inmates and staff. “We looked at several aspects of the prison environment and how they might affect the brain,” Farbstein says, “including the visual environment, the acoustic environment, the impact of light on circadian rhythms, crowding and social functions, and staff–inmate ratio.” The Sonoma County project grew out of that exercise.

Compared to most other jails, the Sonoma County detention center was already considered a next-generation facility that placed greater emphasis on human comfort. The intake space was bright and airy, with a waiting-room atmosphere in which most inmates are booked across an open counter rather than shuffled down dark corridors. “It already was a less stressful environment than 80 to 90 percent of intake areas,” Farbstein says. “There were a lot of things about it that already suggested a lower level of stress.”

It was an ideal environment in which to test their hypothesis. The team initially considered adding live houseplants to the space, which could have been a security risk (as pots and twigs could be used as weapons), and the idea was ultimately deemed less effective than a large-scale mural. Once they centered on that approach, the team chose a mural of savannah grassland that was previously used in a medical setting to positive effect. In addition to the main mural, which measures about 9 feet by 24 feet and was installed in the waiting room, an additional mural of the same image was mirrored to fill a longer and narrower 2-feet-by-38-feet space near the ceiling in the holding-cell area.

The depicted landscape has all the hallmarks of a calming nature scene, Farling says, including open views, enough trees to provide shade and shelter, and a still, nonturbulent water source. Again, the team pointed to previous research indicating humans’ primal connection to the savannah landscape. Architects may also appreciate that the mural simply represents the classic design principle of “prospect and refuge.”

To determine stress levels, the research team chose to record a particular measure of staff heart rates (inter-beat intervals), which was considered less invasive than, say, testing for levels of salivary cortisol—another stress indicator that would require users to chew on a piece of cotton. Comparing heart rates of staff pre- and post-mural showed a measurable reduction in stress at the end of their shifts after the mural was installed. There was also a marked reduction in the staff stress indicators from the beginning to end of their shifts from the pre-mural to the post-mural period.

Farbstein said they are intrigued by the implications that the research may have for the potential of such interventions to reduce stress levels in inmates and that, if stress and other factors are reduced, inmates may be better able to participate effectively in rehabilitation programs. He and his colleagues are seeking more funding to take their research further.

“If you are in a jail that believes in rehabilitation and offers rehabilitation programs,” Farbstein says, “when you have inmates who are less stressed, getting more sleep, and are better able to learn, I think it’s a reasonable hypothesis that they would ultimately have greater success.”

Learn more about the AIA Academy of Architecture for Justice at aia.org/aaj.