Can Prison Landscapes be Secure, Restorative, and Ecologically Sustainable?
by Amy Lindemuth, ASLA
Typical prison landscape. Image courtesy Amy Lindemuth.

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.

But do correctional facilities have to exist in such stark and severe settings? Or can the landscapes in these facilities provide therapeutic benefits or a restorative moment for both the corrections staff and inmates?  I believe the answer is yes.  Moreover, there are some wonderful examples of penitentiaries that provide restorative, secure, and ecologically sustainable landscapes.

The Rikers Island Jails in New York 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.

Greenhouse Butterfly- Bird Garden, Rikers Island. Image courtesy Amy Lindemuth.

Other progressive prison landscapes are described in the Therapeutic Landscapes Network on the Gardens in Prisons. Grounds at other facilities that were historically purposed for a use other than corrections may, in some areas, possess features similar to an academic campus, such as mature trees underplanted 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. Image courtesy Amy Lindemuth.

It appears as though increased landscape diversity is closely linked to the security classification of specific zones of open space within the complex. Inmates working and travelling within highly secured zones have been screened and are considered lower security risks. These zones offer the best opportunities to provide therapeutic and ecological benefits for the site since the security classification can accommodate a broader selection of plant species and heights and may allow modest changes to site topography. In other open space zones, such as those used by inmates from all classification levels, visual complexity and plant diversity will be low due to the higher risk to security in these areas. Even in these other areas of a complex, there is some flexibility and an opportunity for a broader selection of plants which could provide some level of restorative benefit and improvement to the ecological health of the site. It’s extremely important in these areas that plants are less than 24 inches in height (too low for hiding) and that they 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.

Implementing changes to the prison landscape typology necessarily involves the addition of perceived complexity. Visual complexity is introduced as well as the perception of increased maintenance requirements, particularly when the existing landscape is a mown lawn. For officers, the increased complexity and change from the status quo may be perceived as an added, unnecessary risk in their daily efforts to keep the facility secure and themselves safe from harm. In addition, gardens are often viewed as a privilege that lessens inmates’ sentences as mandated by the court. Superintendents who allow gardens at their facility risk being viewed as lenient on inmates by their superiors and custody staff. From the perspective of corrections administrators, there must be compelling reasons for introducing a change that may be perceived as compromising the overall security of the facility.

From our perspective as advocates of healthy, healing places, the clear reasons for these changes are long-term staff and inmate health, more sustainable, energy efficient sites, and ultimately, greater resiliency in our communities as staff and eventually, inmates, return to their families. We can help correction administrators support the implementation of these projects by describing these benefits in terms that will have value and resonance across the corrections culture. One approach is by showing that a garden or landscape program is beneficial to the facility in ways that are distinct from inmate benefits. Projects that demonstrate cost-effectiveness and produce services for the facility—such as food that will supplement other operations budgets—can help administrators justify approval of the project, explain its need to staff, and generate enthusiasm and wider legitimacy throughout the custody chain-of-command. As state and federal budgets continue to hemorrhage, administrators are likely to be increasingly open to implementing site features that increase energy efficiency and reduce water use and maintenance costs. The current state of the economy may ultimately make changes to corrections landscapes an easier argument.

There is opportunity for a range of landscape complexity in our prisons and jails that could increase the ecological function of these sites and potentially provide restorative benefits for staff and inmates. As designers, our approach should be flexible, allowing for multiple typologies within the prison landscape to accommodate the range of security classifications and support staff by keeping security risks low. Corrections centers are often immense public facilities within our communities that should be highly sustainable. This includes providing an environment that helps support the mental and physical health of staff and inmates. We can help correction administrations reach this objective by better understanding the culture of corrections and the unique constraints of corrections facilities, and by describing the benefits of ecological and restorative landscapes in language that helps corrections administrators translate their value to superiors and staff.

Amy Lindemuth, ASLA, is a site designer for Swift Company, LLC and can be reached at:

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Jack Carman, FASLA, Chair (2013-2014)
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Past Chairs

Steve Mitrione, ASLA (2012-2013)

Rick Spalenka (2011-2012)

Susan Erickson, ASLA (2008-2010)

Angela Pappas (2007-2008)

Marguerite Koepke, ASLA (2005-2006)

Naomi Sachs, ASLA (2002-2004)
Therapeutic Landscapes Network

Mark Epstein, ASLA, Co-Chair (1999-2002)

Jack Carman, FASLA, Co-Chair (1999-2002)