ONTARIO — Snake River Correctional Institution has one of the top inventions of the year, according to Time magazine.
The nationwide magazine, in its Dec. 1/Dec. 8 double issue, names SRCI’s “Blue Room” one of the top 25 inventions of 2014. SRCI is in good company; Time’s list also includes creations such a hoverboard created by a California tech company, a high-beta fusion reactor created by Lockheed Martin and the Apple watch.
“TIME contacted the institution a couple of weeks ago and asked if they could do an interview regarding the Blue Room, as they were considering it for the list. Today I found out the list has been released and published on their site, and we are very excited that they included us,” Cathleen Shroyer, SRCI’s public information officer, said in a news release.
SRCI Superintendent Mark Nooth credited prison employees for the Blue Room’s success.
“Staff played a key role in bringing these ideas forward and implementing them. Without the efforts of staff, the Blue Room could not work, as their support is a key factor,” he said. “I really credit the successes of the Blue Room to them.”
The prison’s Blue Room is an exercise space in which a projector plays video of outdoor scenes, including deserts and waterfalls. Time praised the prison for giving prisoners in intensive management units — essentially solitary confinement — a place to exercise that gets them out of their “tiny, white-walled cell — an experience some research suggests can heighten mental illness and make prisoners prone to suicide attempts and violence.”
Inmates who use the Blue Room spend 23 hours a day in their cells. They come out only to shower, spend time in the recreational area or for medical treatment, the news release from the prison says.
These are inmates who already have spent five months in SRCI’s disciplinary segregation unit “for misconduct that is serious and a threat to the safety and security of the institution,” the news release says. “They are then assigned to the [intensive management unit] where they take part in intense programing to help them address the issues that they need to work on.”
Prisoners who are in the intensive management unit “have committed serious offenses,” the release says. Such offenses might include assaulting staff members or other inmates, or attempting to escape.
While these prisoners have done things that are “life threatening and dangerous,” SRCI doesn’t have a lock them up and throw away the key mentality.
“Although we fully understand and support the use of [intensive management units] and see it as an absolute need in a prison, we also understand that anyone who is isolated for long periods of time [is] at risk for symptoms of mental illness, depression and assaultive outburst,” the release says.
That’s where the Blue Room comes in. It is intended to help calm prisoners, “much in the way we walk through a park,” Time magazine quotes creator Nalini Nadkarni as saying.
Nadkarni, a professor at the University of Utah, is leading research into the project at SRCI, the prison’s news release says. Nadkarni began working with SRCI in 2013, helping the prison incorporate her idea that nature could have a positive effect on inmates during incarceration.
“The group decided to place a nature imagery, through video projection with audio, in one of the recreation area’s of an [intensive management] unit,” the release says. “From there the Blue Room was born.”
Inmates can access the room during their normal recreation time or when the inmate or a staff member feels the Blue Room would help the prisoner.
“Inmates have responded so well that guards now use blue-room time as a way to pre-empt bad behavior,” Time magazine says.
While the results seem positive, Nadkarni says she doesn’t yet have hard numbers.
“We have collected some anecdotal data from staff and inmates on the positive effects of the intervention, but we will need to wait until January to carry out our formal surveys, case studies interviews, and analysis of frequency of violent infractions,” she said.
Nadkarni said that data will be included in a peer-reviewed journal.
Prisons from around the world are waiting to see that data, Shroyer said, adding that having so much attention on the Blue Room is “really humbling.”
“We hope that the development of the Blue Room can help other institutions that are looking at ways to address concerns relating to solitary confinement and the impact it has on inmates. Ultimately our goal is to continue to focus on ways to help rehabilitate inmates, reduce recidivism and operate the safest institution possible,” she said. “We look forward to seeing what the actual research tells us.”