Can prison landscapes be secure, restorative, and ecologically sustainable? Guest post by Amy Lindemuth

A typical prison landscape in Washington State. Photo by Amy Lindemuth

A typical prison landscape in Washington State. Photo by Amy Lindemuth

Today’s guest post is by Amy Lindemuth, 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.

Amy became interested in corrections after taking a series of undergraduate courses in medical anthropology at the University of Washington that focused on the culture of institutions and cultural constructions of health and mental illness. As a graduate student in landscape architecture, her interest in therapeutic landscapes and corrections led to a thesis project at the Monroe Correctional Complex in Monroe, Washington, designing a large courtyard garden for staff and inmates within a unit for mentally ill offenders. She also worked as a volunteer on the design and construction of a garden for mothers and their children at the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility in New York. These experiences gave insight into the concerns and perceptions of custody staff regarding green spaces in their facilities, and furthered her understanding of the cultural and psychological constraints unique to the field of corrections. Amy is interested in creating healthy, sustainable spaces that strengthen the social and ecological fabric of our communities. She practices in Seattle, WA. This is the first of two guest blog posts on the subject; we will publish the second post next week.

Can Prison Landscapes be Secure, Restorative, and Ecologically Sustainable? by Amy Lindemuth

Over the past several years, I’ve written articles [see the Therapeutic Landscapes Network’s References and Gardens in Prisons pages] about the need for landscapes in correctional facilities that provide therapeutic benefits or a restorative moment for corrections staff and inmates. For the most part, the views surrounding prisons and jails in the United States are bleak expanses of lawn, chain link security fences, walls and concertina wire, like the image above. Occasionally the view is broken by perennials planted near an administrative office or a vegetable garden in a secured area. This landscape typology evolved from the real need to keep staff, inmates, and the public safe from harm. Officer sight lines from station posts, towers, and other patrol locations throughout the grounds are unimpeded, allowing for quick identification of, and reaction to, disturbances or illicit behavior.

Greenhouse butterfly and bird garden, Rikers Island. Photo by Amy Lindemuth

Butterfly and bird garden, Rikers Island. Photo by Amy Lindemuth

There are exceptions. Some facilities, such as Rikers Island Jails in New York (left image), allow students in their horticulture programs to beautify the grounds with a diverse arrangement and selection of plants that go beyond your typical geraniums lining an entry walk [for more exceptions, see the TLN’s Gardens in Prisons page]. Grounds at other facilities that were historically purposed for a use other than corrections may, in some areas, possess qualities similar to an academic campus, such as mature trees under planted with shrubs and lawn. The fact that these other landscape typologies exist in the American corrections system, including maximum security prisons, suggests that there are opportunities to include a range of landscape types within our prisons and jails.

Bedford Hills Correctional Facility. Photo by Amy Lindemuth

Bedford Hills Correctional Facility. Photo by Amy Lindemuth

In the prisons and jails I’ve worked in or visited, increased landscape diversity is closely linked to the security classification of specific zones of open space within the complex. Highly secured areas allow for the greatest range of plant species and heights. Inmates working and walking within these zones have been screened and are considered lower security risks. In other open space zones, for instance areas used by inmates from all classification levels hourly or daily, visual complexity and plant diversity will be low.  However, even in these less secured areas of a complex, I propose that there is some flexibility and an opportunity for a broader selection of plants. It’s extremely important in these areas that plants are less than 24 inches in height (too low for hiding) and are pulled several feet away from walks (to prevent the hiding of contraband such as weapons and drugs).  Yet with judicious planning, I believe these types of landscape designs can be implemented without compromising safety or security.  I’m interested to learn if anyone else has seen this kind of approach implemented in corrections or experienced landscapes in a prison or jail setting that offer more visually or experientially than lawn and fences. What was the context of this open space within the overall security framework of the complex and how do staff and inmates perceive these spaces?

Thanks so much, Amy, for this excellent post. Stay tuned for post #2, coming next week.