How would it feel, as a nature lover, to be locked behind bars for a year? And what does this deprivation tell us about our criminal-justice system? David Campbell reflects on a year imprisoned.
A week before I went to jail for a year, my best friend and I went camping in our home state of Virginia. Just a little overnighter before I went away.
We’re suburb kids, but also Eagle Scouts. Throughout our adolescence, guided weekend retreats to the Blue Ridge wilderness were a monthly ritual. I’ve camped up and down the East Coast, but these mountains always feel like home, especially at night, when the soft trilling of tree frogs and katydids fills the air, lulling you to sleep.
We made camp atop a small, pleasant, nearly bald mountain. The trailhead was all but hidden, half the rocky double peak shrouded with a lush coat of oak and mountain laurel. The single campsite, no more than a flat dirt space and a ring of stones with ashes in the middle, felt surprisingly intimate. Steps away, the mountain’s summit offered its unreal three-quarter view of Appalachia below. We watched the sun set there, and night fell. After dinner, we let the fire burn down in near-silence. I inhaled deeply in the dark, and slept easy that night, though there was sadness in my heart.
Nineteen months earlier, I had attended an antifascist protest and things had gotten out of hand. After a brawl erupted, I ended up the only person arrested. A cop broke my leg and lied about it, and the prosecutor seemed hellbent on making an example of someone. After dragging my case out for nearly two years in the hope that it might go away, I ended up taking a felony assault plea for 18 months in order to cut my losses – a highly disproportionate sentence, especially for a first conviction, but I felt I had no choice.
The knowledge that my conviction was, in a word, nonsense, and that I was doing time for something I believed in, even if I’d rather not, cushioned the blow a little. Still, it couldn’t prepare me to do without the many things I knew I’d miss from the outside world: privacy, intimacy, affection, good food, the comforts of home, the company of friends – and, of course, nature. My pre-jail overnighter was, in part, an attempt to soak in as much nature as I could before taking the plunge, as if I was gulping down great lungfuls of air before a deep and dangerous dive.
My friends created a website about my criminal case, including a page of prompts for people that wanted to write to me. “When was the last time you were in nature?” one of them read. “Where were you? What did it look, sound, smell, feel like?” Soon I was receiving letters, some from total strangers, describing in exquisite sensory detail their hikes and campouts in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado, the deep pine forests of Michigan, sandy Chincoteague Island off the Virginia coast, and more.
Like many people behind bars, I quickly found reading to be the simplest and most enriching way to try and pass the time. Nature writing and environmental science formed a substantial percentage of my extensive reading list.
Visualisation was another tool I used to pass time and keep myself focused on the life I would hopefully return to. I would close my eyes and imagine myself in another world – often places I’d been backpacking before, dense and tranquil forests with dirt paths inviting me further in.
'My pre-jail overnighter was, in part, an attempt to soak in as much nature as I could before taking the plunge, as if I was gulping down great lungfuls of air before a deep and dangerous dive.'
The most contact with nature you’re likely to have behind bars is in the yard. The yards I was able to frequent were grass, but some are only concrete or astroturf, and may even have a grill between you and the sky. I have never heard of a yard that had so much as a single tree. Rikers Island, where I served my time, is a mass of toxic landfill with precious few trees anywhere at all. Sometimes the grass in the yard might go untrimmed for a few weeks, and grow tall and spindly enough to whip around in the wind blowing off the frigid East River. Given the circumstances, this was sometimes downright striking in its beauty.
For a while, the job I was forced to labour at included a good deal of yard work, like clearing overgrowth from abandoned jailhouses with weed whackers and hedge trimmers. Sometimes we even rode the rumbling white Department of Correction bus back across the bridge to Queens, where a small copse of deciduous trees greeted us. I always strained at the barred window to take it in. It wasn’t exactly shinrin-yoku, but it was something. Enough to tide me over, I hoped.
No two carceral experiences are the same. In some jails and prisons, there are training programmes and forced-labour jobs centred on gardening, farming, and horticulture. But for most people there is little, if any, contact with nature anywhere. Even if, unlike me, you’re lucky enough to be incarcerated somewhere with a lot of greenery around, there are bound to be a few layers of bars and fences between you and the natural world.
'Sometimes the grass in the yard might go untrimmed for a few weeks, and grow tall and spindly enough to whip around in the wind blowing off the frigid East River. Given the circumstances, this was sometimes downright striking in its beauty.'
Most of those locked up against their will are people of colour from impoverished urban backgrounds. They are, for a number of reasons, one of the least likely demographics to visit the outdoors recreationally. Still, they often feel drawn to it, especially in the unstimulating carceral milieu.
I recently spoke to a friend I made in jail about this. He later served prison time in rural upstate New York, near the Canadian border. “I used to watch Bambi running in and out of the trees, running wild, acting crazy,” he told me with a chuckle. “Me, personally coming from Brooklyn, there is no Bambi playing in the trees. Just… a bunch of fucking cops. That’s my reality.”
The same guy had gone on a couple of summer camping excursions for inner-city youth as a kid and enjoyed them. Now, he said, the prospect of camping was somewhat daunting. “But hiking? I would do something like that. Looks kinda fun.”
For others, proximity to a prohibited wilderness can be downright painful. I also spoke to a former Earth Liberation Front prisoner who served about two years in a federal prison in the heart of the Appalachian Mountains, a few hours’ drive from that Blue Ridge mountain top where, years later, I’d spend my last night in the wild before becoming an inmate myself. As you might imagine, he’s big into the outdoors, and he could see lush, rolling woodland from inside the double-razor-wire fence. When I asked him how that made him feel, he paused for a moment. “You know… isolated. From existence.” He had no trouble explaining what he meant by that.
“I mean, here you are, you're watching deer and animals and birds all on the other side of this fence, and you’re in this controlled environment that is so… unearthly. On top of that, you weren’t allowed to be outside when it rained. So here you are looking at all these trees from this barren concrete desert, and you’re not even allowed to touch rain. I mean, I didn’t touch rain for two years. And you don’t think about that, and then it rains…”
He also relayed that he’d once trafficked a flower and a pocketful of dirt into his cell, and set them up by his window in a pot he’d crafted from newspaper. “They found it pretty quickly,” he laughed. “I don't think that’s what they were expecting me to smuggle out from the yard, a random flower.”
I can easily understand his urge to spruce up his cell with a little greenery. Beyond their simple dearth of nature, jails and prisons are highly engineered environments. The colours are drab grey and puke yellow, all angles are square, and the only wildlife is the sort of species people generally call exterminators for.
'So here you are looking at all these trees from this barren concrete desert, and you’re not even allowed to touch rain. I mean, I didn’t touch rain for two years. And you don’t think about that, and then it rains.'
Much ink has – rightfully – been spilled writing about how incarceration traumatises people by alienating them from their friends, their families, their sense of agency and self-worth, and from society itself. It also alienates people from their very essence as a part of nature, from the primordial soup from which we all arose.
Over the past twenty years, a broad and fast-growing body of scientific research has increasingly confirmed what people have intuitively known for millennia: being in nature is good for you. It is therapeutic and restorative. It boosts both mental and physical health. It is where we have evolved to belong, even for those of us who prefer the conveniences of urban dwelling. Terms like “forest bathing” and “nature therapy” have now entered the mainstream. In several countries and a range of US states, doctors can now offer “green prescriptions” for their patients to spend time outdoors.
The booming research in this field centres on the dynamic between the natural world in which Homo sapiens evolved, and the built environment that Homo sapiens have created. The built environment often looks and feels nothing like the natural one, and is for this reason, on a fundamental biological level, taxing to us. Jails and prisons are the most alienating of built environments. Incorporating nature into their cruel architecture could serve as a bulwark against the trauma that contributes to so many people coming back.
How exactly to introduce more nature into jails and prisons is a difficult question. While I am loath to empathise with the carceral authorities on anything, I will readily concede that from their perspective, the prospect of taking groups of prisoners on, say, wellness-walk field trips to the local forest presents a veritable security nightmare. After all, a single tree in a yard is seen as a liability. “Green prison programs” like gardening have been shown to decrease recidivism. Expanding their funding would be a start, but they don’t fundamentally change the character of the built environment prisoners spend most of their time in.
Perhaps the most interesting research and initiatives in this direction have emerged from the work of ecologist Nalini Nadkarni. She has led various studies into how interaction with plants, such as through involvement in conservation and restoration efforts, affects prisoners. Her most famous – and intriguing – work centres on the application of virtual nature spaces in jails and prisons. These spaces have produced marked decreases in stress and violence among prisoners who experience them.
I’d probably be thrilled to visit a virtual nature room if I were incarcerated in a facility that offered one. Yet the idea leaves an unshakeable dystopian taste in my mouth. A pale, digital copy of nature in a basement cannot be the best we can do.
'I’d probably be thrilled to visit a virtual nature room if I were incarcerated in a facility that offered one. Yet the idea leaves an unshakeable dystopian taste in my mouth. A pale, digital copy of nature in a basement cannot be the best we can do.'
As for those recently freed from incarceration, there seem to be hardly any resources encouraging them to spend time in nature. I could find only one substantial piece of journalism on the topic, a 2016 Outside Online article entitled “Is Nature the Key to Rehabilitating Prisoners?”. The piece chronicles the nature outings of various men who have recently been released, or are allowed daytime outdoor excursions as part of the mentorship programme at Sponsors, a non-profit in Oregon that assists the recently released with reentry.
Sponsors confirmed to me that facilitating access to the outdoors is still part of their mentorship programme. But the 2016 article reports that it was one of the only such programmes in the country, and based on what little I found in my research, that still seems to be the case. In addition, efforts to apply nature therapy to the recently released seem to have been met with a predictable sort of uncomprehending resistance. One Sponsors employee, after sending a picture of her clients enjoying the outdoors to a donor agency, received the unapproving reply: “We’re not paying for them to have fun.” Of course, that’s missing the point: running around in the woods is fun. For that very reason, it is also treatment, and an effective one at that: formerly incarcerated people in Sponsors’ mentorship program are 80 percent less likely to reoffend than others in their county.
What’s more, the research shows that contact with nature doesn’t have to be a deepwoods bushwacking excursion to have significant therapeutic effects. In fact, time spent in urban and suburban parks, which are essential spaces for social interaction, can have almost as positive an impact on health and wellbeing as regular jaunts in full-blown woodlands. I have in mind as I write this a gentlemanly Black Brooklyn native in his upper fifties whose release date fell shortly after mine. “You know what I can’t wait to do when I get out?” he often asked me with a faint, anticipatory smile creeping onto his face. “Just sit in a park in the early morning. Maybe read the newspaper.”
Try as I might, I can think of no reason why we should not be encouraging people like him to sit quietly beneath trees in the early morning and take time to reflect in solitude. Could post-release programmes not include free passes to botanic gardens or national parks? Post-release supervision programmes like parole, probation and halfway houses, while largely presented as a step toward reintegration, function more as a hindrance than anything, with their “long supervision terms, numerous and burdensome requirements, and constant surveillance,” and often result in people being sent back to jail. Could those forced to endure this pointless burden not be given the means and encouragement to spend time in local green spaces? Even incorporating information on why and how to spend 120 minutes or more in the outdoors per week into the official reentry literature would be an improvement, however minor, on our terrible system.
Lest we lose sight of the proverbial forest for the trees, it must be said that the best thing to do would be to stop incarcerating people in the first place. Mass incarceration is both unnecessary and a failure; most people in American jails and prisons are not dangerous psychopaths and do not need to be there. Ending it entails reinvesting in communities via healthcare, education, and social services – which, for the free and the captive alike, should absolutely include facilitating contact with nature.
'“You know what I can’t wait to do when I get out?” he often asked me with a faint, anticipatory smile creeping onto his face. “Just sit in a park in the early morning. Maybe read the newspaper.”'
I spent twelve months behind bars, and a few months after my release, my friend and I went camping again. The same almost-secret trailhead, modest campsite, and breathtaking mountaintop view.
Incarceration often makes you feel powerless. The days drag, the institution seems untouchable. That year had at times felt like an eternity, an endless stretch of time in which I had no rightful place. But sitting again in that bower of mountain laurel beside my patient friend and a pile of lazily spitting embers, just as we had a year prior, from time to time spotting pinpoint lights from cars below and shooting stars above – it all reminded me that to a mountain like the one upon which we had made our ephemeral home, a year is nothing at all.
No, I realised, twelve months was nothing at all to the colossus upon whose friendly back we stretched our legs by the fire, a thing dating from the proterozoic era, a mass composed of countless tons of granite. If it could be caged, it would still be there, all but identical, when the bars and fences had disintegrated into rust, and it would never even know or care.
And strangely, that made me feel powerless, too, but in the same heartening, humbling way it had since childhood, as if the earth itself was welcoming me back without a word, as if the shroud of oak and mountain laurel around me were a familiar hug.
I know that camping may not be for everyone, but calling the outdoors your home for a single night can remind you in a very visceral way that it has, in fact, always been your home. I was struck by that every time I went into the forest in the first year or so after my release. It’s fainter now, but I still feel it when I get out into the woods, along with a steady thrum of gratitude for my freedom. I embrace nature more conscientiously now. There, I can go where I please and be among organisms like myself, and no one needs to know where I am or what I’m doing. Sometimes, when I camp or hike, I wander off and find a quiet place to sit for a moment and drink in the nature, thinking of that time that seems so long ago now when any guard could stop me in the hall and demand to know where I was going. When I had to scan a barcode worn around my wrist to leave or enter the room. Where a potted plant would be considered contraband.
I felt that sense of freedom and belonging very clearly that night back on the mountaintop with my back-home friend: I was once again in the place where I had evolved.
Good to be back, I thought to myself with a smile. We sat quietly by the fire some more. And later, cloaked in the familiar sounds of the Blue Ridge night, I inhaled deeply and slept easy once again.