Last week, we published an article by guest blogger Amy Lindemuth, “Can prison landscapes be secure, restorative, and ecologically sustainable?” This was the first of two articles, and this week we give you the second:
What makes a prison landscape therapeutic? by Amy Lindemuth
In my last post, I discussed the possibility that the accepted cultural norm for prison and jail landscapes of ubiquitous mown lawn, chain link, blank walls, and wire could be shifted to include greater plant diversity and visual complexity. From our perspective as advocates of healthy, healing places, the primary goal of such an effort would be to increase the potential for these spaces to provide therapeutic benefits for users and improve the ecological health of the site. Yet, I’ve begun to ask myself the question, within the context of corrections complexes, what makes an open space “therapeutic” or “restorative”? In describing a new sustainable, therapeutic garden at the VA Puget Sound Fisher House in Seattle, local landscape architect Jan Satterthwaite (www.vireods.com) made this distinction: “What makes the therapeutic garden at a hospital special involves an understanding of what might help ‘transport’ people away from the medical process or the medical center.” See this ASLA Healthcare and Therapeutic Design Newsletter for the full article.
I think this is true for gardens in prisons and jails, but corrections settings also have a unique set of circumstances and constraints compared to hospitals. As I’ve discussed, differing security levels within the same facility determine the level of landscape complexity that can occur in different open spaces. Usually these open spaces are so stark and bleak that I find myself wondering whether any kind of interesting landscape elements, even annual borders, offer some healthful benefits. Certainly elements this simple cannot generate the deep, lasting changes discussed in the research literature on therapeutic landscapes. Yet, in an environment where the bar for landscapes is despairingly low, these simple gestures may offer a symbol of normalcy that helps reduce someone’s stress in that instant or set a helpful tone for the day.
Open spaces in prisons and jails can and do range from the simple to the complex. I think one of the responsibilities of designers and corrections administrators is to push for these landscapes to do more and serve multiple functions, from addressing stormwater onsite and improving habitat function to helping reduce stress among officers and inmates. I believe this approach can be accomplished without compromising overall security. Rather than planting lawn, what if high security areas had plants 24” or less in height which were physically inaccessible to inmates? These low height landscapes could provide better functionality in terms of reducing irrigation and maintenance requirements and addressing stormwater than is possible with mown lawn. The visual relief provided by these areas could also offer more to staff and inmates in terms of normalizing the work and living environment. Our mental image of what prison landscapes look like needs to expand to include typologies that address multiple site functions, site functionality, and staff and inmate health while meeting the requirements of the various security zones within the site.
Amy Lindemuth is the author of “Beyond the Bars: Landscapes for Health and Healing in Corrections,” a chapter in the forthcoming Greening in the Red Zone: Disaster, Resilience and Community Greening edited by Keith G. Tidball and Marianne E. Krasny. She practices in Seattle, WA. For Amy’s full bio, please see her previous post, “Can prison landscapes be secure, restorative, and ecologically sustainable?“