There are 15 prisons in Scotland. They house approximately 8000 people on any given day. (1)

Scotland’s rates of imprisoning people from within the general population have gone up, as compared to a century ago. We now have one of the highest imprisonment rates in Europe.

Our culture tends to think of prisons as places for bad people who have done bad things. However, a deeper look at the statistics provides a very different perspective.(2)

Prisons as places for bad people? It seems, rather, that prisons are like warehouses for traumatised people.

That is a stark statement. It is one that I often use in my work as a scientist and public speaker in the field of developmental psychology. I use it to try to get our society and systems to look again at the assumptions of our prison system. What brings people into the criminal justice system? What if it isn’t simply ‘bad behaviour’, but is often something much more complicated, based in distress, emotional dysregulation, inequality and childhood trauma? If we saw prisons through this lens, how would we construct and run prisons?

How might they respond to and even help with recovery from distress and dysregulation?

Ironically, if we do not think about these questions, our justice system cannot actually serve justice. Ignoring them means that we don’t pay attention to the factors that drive crime.

We place people in living conditions that make criminal activity more likely. We leave people without the resources to recover from distress. I am not the only one using strong statements to try to prompt rethinking on these fronts. Dr. David Scott calls prisons “warehouses of suffering and death”.

This description was at the heart of his call in 2017 to refrain from building yet more prisons in England and Wales. (3)

We might see that ‘rethink’ as the creation of a trauma-informed prison system. What would such a system look like? What would prison buildings themselves look like? How might the spaces within prisons be constructed to reduce the effects of trauma?

These are encouraging, creative questions which the new Paradigm Landscapes team has set themselves to addressing. They are exploring the construction of outdoor spaces within prisons that are specifically intended to reduce the physiological dysregulation that results from trauma and toxic stress.

I am pleased to offer this endorsement of Paradigm’s vision. I see their initiative for outdoor spaces in prisons as having two key strengths:

It is explicitly designed with the aim of calming the stress system. A range of research studies now confirm that spending time outside is restorative for human beings. (4)  It boosts the parasympathetic division of the central nervous system, including slowing breathing, slowing heart rate, reducing production of the stress hormone cortisol and relaxing muscle tension. An outdoor space can be furnished with plants, objects or decoration that are designed to provoke particular sensory experiences. This is relevant because it is sensory experiences that stimulate the stress system, either heightening or reducing a sense of threat. Individuals with a background of trauma will naturally be more hypervigilant to threat. Anything in their environment that can help to calm the sensory system will reduce their unconscious reliance on hypervigilance. Thus, simply spending time in a trauma-informed outdoor space will enhance the health and behaviour of those individuals living within the prison system. This will have benefits for the whole of the prison community.

The presence of such a space within the prison community should prompt other trauma-informed initiatives. Because the space is explicitly designed as a trauma intervention, its creation and presence should prompt greater general awareness of how the stress system functions and the trauma that exists within the prison community. Conversations amongst prisoners, staff and governors should emerge. Awareness should lead to other initiatives that can address the aims of health, self- regulation and recovery.

In short, the creation of a trauma-informed outdoor space has the potential to spark wider culture change. The TIGERS Group, within which Paradigm Landscapes sits, is experienced in facilitating and responding to such broader cultural shifts.

The interest in trauma-informed approaches in blossoming across Scotland. (5) Over the past decade, the education, social work, criminal justice, and health sectors have all embarked on journeys of trauma awareness. The commitment of the Scottish Government and Public Health Scotland to addressing Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) and childhood trauma has facilitated this energy, alongside dynamic grassroots interest. The Scottish Violence Reduction Unit has played a fundamental role, since 2005, in driving this shift.

Thus, this is an excellent time for embarking upon the project that Paradigm Landscapes plans. I am very pleased to offer my endorsement.

1/ These figures are taken from the 2019 report on Scotland’s Prison Population, published by the Scottish Centre for Crime & Justice Research (SCCJR): Scotlands-prison-population.pdf

2/ These figures are taken from the 2017 Scottish Prisoner Survey, based on data from more than 3000 people, representing 46% of the prison population that year.


4/ The 2018 metanalysis of nearly 150 peer-reviewed research studies, published in the journal Environmental Research by Twohig-Bennett and Jones, concluded: “Our findings should encourage practitioners and policymakers to give due regard to how they can create, maintain, and improve existing accessible greenspaces.”
See also this summary of the article:

5/ For an historical account of this Scottish movement, see Zeedyk 2021:

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