PhD opportunity: ‘Woodlands in Prison; therapeutic landscape elements, high-risk vertical structures, or inappropriate indulgence?’

Applications are invited from prospective candidates for a PhD entitled ‘Woodlands in prison: therapeutic landscape elements, high-risk vertical structures, or inappropriate indulgence?‘ to be undertaken at the School of Geography, Earth and Environmental Sciences at the University of Birmingham, UK, under the supervision of Dr Dominique Moran and Professor Jon Sadler.

There is no funding attached to this PhD project – but the supervisors are keen to work with candidates to support any funding applications they may wish to make, and to consider part-time arrangements, as appropriate. The University of Birmingham has a range of PhD funding opportunities available, and any candidates holding partial funding are invited to make this known, since match-funding is sometimes available.

Project description

This project examines the ways in which trees feature in secure custodial environments (SCEs, such as prisons). SCEs are typically highly-controlled spaces, in which landscape elements (buildings, fences etc.) are carefully planned to maintain a secure perimeter and clear sightlines, and to minimise opportunities for inmates to scale vertical structures, or conceal contraband). They are also environments whose cost, both capital-build and facilities-management, is under constant scrutiny. Further, they are environments about which very strong opinions are held about what is ‘appropriate’ – public opinion, as reported in a vigilant media, complains that prisons resemble ‘holiday camps’ and are ‘too soft’, instead demanding ‘no-frills’ accommodation. However, contemporary prison reform discourse emphasises “normalisation”, and suggests that therapeutic environments can support enhanced rehabilitation and possibly desistance from reoffending. The burgeoning literature on the ‘healing’ properties of contact with nature are under-researched arenas in carceral studies.

The project seeks to explore the following questions:

Under what circumstances are trees present within SCEs? What does their presence or otherwise say about the role they are considered to play in these spaces? How is their presence contested, and debated, and what arguments are made to justify their presence?

What is the significance of the presence of trees in SCEs for those who live and work in them? What difference do trees make to the experience of custody?

A specific and important focus is the intersection between human and forest space- and time-scales. Studies of passage of time for prisoners commonly find that time ‘stands still’, and that the repetitive daily regime and static built environment minimises seasonal cues which mark the passage and quality of time. Similarly, the prison space can feel ‘cut off’ from wider societal space. The project will therefore investigate whether presence of trees (e.g. through growth, seasonality (e.g. bud burst and leaf fall), and attraction of wildlife commonly absent from SCEs) affects the ways in which prisoners perceive space and time.

Findings from the project will contribute to wider debates over the nature and experience of carceral spaces, notions of biophilia, and therapeutic landscape effects; and the formulation of best practice design principles.

This project has a core focus on understandings of forest elements within secure custodial environments (trees as risk, as opportunity for deviant behaviour, as temptation, as potentially therapeutic or ‘normalising’ landscape feature), which in turn affects the decisions which are made about their inclusion or exclusion, species selection, and management, within secure environments. This is addressed by evaluating the potentially therapeutic effect of trees within secure custodial spaces, considering the functions they can perform, and the meanings that they hold, for persons confined to these spaces, either as inmates or staff. In this research context time is critically important, given the widely observed lack of time-reference points in environments which commonly lack visual evidence of seasonality.

The project would investigate the research questions via fieldwork at SCEs, and for each site would involve qualitative data-generation, including interviews with prisoners, staff and senior managers, as well as (for recently-built facilities) interviews with architects, landscape architects and facilities managers, and ethnographic observation on site at each facility.  Ideally, physiological measurements will be made. These are extremely challenging given restrictions on research techniques in SCEs, but potential options will be explored with host facilities during ethical review.


Dominique Moran’s research and teaching is in the sub-discipline of carceral geography, a geographical perspective on incarceration. Her research in the UK, Russia and Scandinavia, supported by the ESRC, has contributed to her transdisciplinary work, informed by and extending theoretical developments in geography, criminology and prison sociology, but also interfacing with contemporary debates over hyperincarceration, recidivism and the advance of the punitive state. She has a particular interest in therapeutic custodial landscapes, and has undertaken research which has touched upon teh potentuial therapeutic effect of trees in custodial settings.

Jon Sadler is a biogeographer and ecologist whose research focuses on species population and assemblage dynamics in animals (sometimes plants). His work is highly interdisciplinary, bisecting biogeography, ecology, urban design, riparian management and island Biogeography. It uses approaches that combine detailed field studies, field and laboratory experimentation, sometimes with social science to examine the links between environmental variability and species (including humans) responses. His research has significant blue skies and applied implications for understanding and responding to the impacts of climate and environmental change variability on urban and island ecosystems, hydrological systems, riparian/riverine ecology, the management/conservation of freshwaters. He is a fan of numbers and coding (especially using open source software such as R).

Host organisation

The School of Geography, Earth and Environmental Sciences has a renowned history for international excellence in research and teaching. We are proud of our long history and build on our successes through our research and teaching to address the challenges of the 21st Century such as climate change, oil exploration, renewable energy and resilience. Research in the School centres around four research themes that cut across traditional discipline boundaries and respond to major research challenges. The four areas as Human Geography, Physical Geography, Environmental Health Sciences and Geosystems. This PhD project would sit across Human and Physical Geography, and would be able to draw upon the expertise concentrated at Birmingham through the Birmingham Institute of Forest Research (BIFoR) The doctoral researcher undertaking this project would be a member of the Carceral Geography Lab at GEES.logo purple 2

Application information and enquiries

In the first instance, please email to register your interest in this project. There is no closing date.