After years of trying to bring proper light to an English prison, Michaele Wynn-Jones, asks why the authorities seem content to subject people to such glare and gloom.
Imagine living up to 23 hours a day in a confined space the size of the average bathroom complete with open toilet, under a humming fluorescent tube that is your only available light source. The only way to stop the glare that is “doing your head in” is to paint over the plastic light covering with coloured oil paints, or use crepe paper, or the regulation orange cellophane filter the authorities give you in an attempt to stop the headaches and eyestrain.
A window will not be much help: the one available will be made of toughened glazing that dims what little light is available, and may have a 20ft wall not a yard away from it, cutting the light even more.
Imagine working in a basement or an internal office, with virtually no natural daylight, lit by computer screens and under fluorescent lighting. Imagine living in an environment where it is never totally dark because of the constraints of “security”.
Many prisoners and prison staff don’t have to imagine all this: it is their reality. One wonders whether the physical environment of some of our prisons should perhaps carry a government health warning – for inmates and employees alike.
One prison doctor has so little natural daylight in his consulting room that he has to switch on his lights at 8 o’clock in the morning and keep them on until he goes. Gatehouse officers layer the orange cellophane over fluorescent light fittings in the same way as the prisoners do because the relentless glare gives them headaches.
Fluorescent lighting was not meant to come into such general use: it was a temporary, emergency feature that was only ever intended to keep factories working 24 hours a day during the Second World War.
Victims of crime and the general public may think prisons are not supposed to be hotels, but prisons are not just about keeping offenders secure. They are also about education and rehabilitation. Bad lighting is conducive to neither because it has a profound effect on the biological functioning of the body.
Convicted criminals are only part of the prison population. In a remand prison such as the one in which I recently worked, the majority of the inmates are innocent until proven guilty in court; and prison is a community where half the total inhabitants are ordinary working people, officers, nurses, teachers, office staff and librarians.
I have been a teacher and trainer for 25 years across a whole range of ages and abilities both in mainstream, adult and special education. I have just completed a seven-year “stretch” on the education team of a men’s remand prison in the south of England.
Apart from my teaching commitment, I have also spent the past 15 years studying, training in and speaking on the health implications of colour and light. I feel a deep sense of outrage at the number of suicides and the levels of depression in the prison population as a whole and I personally believe that some of the depression may be stimulated by circumstances outside the economic and security constraints of running a prison.
Of course imprisonment itself is a depressing experience and the usual social and working pressures of shift work in such an environment may lead to some mental and emotional problems for the staff. However, I suggest that some of the stress may be environmental, due partly to bad lighting – and that can be put right.
For the last four of my seven years at the Victorian prison where I worked, I repeatedly expressed concerns over the physical environment – concerns echoed in the negative reports the prison continues to receive from its own board of visitors, government inspection teams and other informed bodies.
In 1998 following a two suicides within days of each other, I wrote a report for the internal health and safety committee, flagging up the fact that the ageing fluorescent lighting was potentially unhealthy and might be contributing to the suicides, headaches, eye strain, depression, sleep disorders, carbohydrate cravings and other symptoms experienced by the prison population as a whole, including warders, social workers, probation staff, teachers, chaplains, the medical staff and well as the inmates
Although the governor then in charge of works, the person responsible for the maintenance and buildings, dismissed the report out of hand, the chairman of the health and safety committee suggested privately that I had a case worth pursuing, since he also spent long hours in his office and suffered from headaches and loss of concentration.
I wrote Sir David Ramsbotham, then chief inspector of prisons, under whose chairmanship the government subsequently set up a committee to do a thematic review of suicide and self harm in prisons. He was most supportive and forwarded my letters to the relevant directors in the prison services including the deputy director general and the director of health care. I heard nothing from any of them.
In 1999 at the International Light Conference at Reading University I heard a speaker called Anne Silk talking about the lack of darkness causing serious medical and emotional problems since it interfered with the body’s ability to manufacture vital brain chemicals. To illustrate her talk she showed a picture of a prison cell at night, lit up by the perimeter security lighting. I listened to world scientists confirming my beliefs about mal-illumination being linked to depression, impotence, sleeping disorders and skin cancers.
At the very least, according to some of them, certain types of fluorescent tubes leak radiation and some may lead to a depletion of brain chemicals such as serotonin and melatonin. This can lead to the kind of depression that in extreme situations precipitates suicide.
The partial answer seemed to be in a new breed of lighting tubes that were more like daylight in that they covered the whole colour spectrum rather than just a section. Doctors with whom I am studying have also told me that the letters SAD (seasonal affective disorder) may be substituted for the letters PMS (premenstrual syndrome) – that in effect they share similar symptoms and a similar cause.
Again I wrote to Sir David Ramsbotham in June 1999 with more of my findings. He had no funding to support a trial into the effects of lighting in prison but his principal psychologist suggested some stress questionnaires I might use to start my research. She also thought I might get support from a university for such research.
We have two universities within 10 minutes of the prison, but without my being able to produce funding, they were not interested in joining this research.
I contacted a company in High Wycombe called Full Spectrum Lighting Ltd and talked to its managing director, Carol Barkfield. She was more than supportive. With the approval of a new works governor, she not only sent a consultant to the prison to establish priority areas where a lighting trial could be set up, but gave me hundreds of pounds worth of tubes on the understanding that we would use them to run a proper lighting trial.
A university professor whom I contacted through the prison medical officer offered guidance but also required funding. That funding did not materialise and after four years of trying I gave up and resigned – with the full spectrum tubes still stacked in the prison stores.
A few months ago, as another bad report on the prison hit the headlines and two other suicides were on the news, I had one last shot and again wrote a paper on the question of light and took it to the MP in whose constituency the prison lies. Like Sir David Ramsbotham he was interested and sympathetic but his raising of the matter on my behalf with a new principal governor at the prison led nowhere.
Perhaps no one actually cares about prison inmates, or the civilian staff who work with them. But this is not just a prison campaign. Prisons are like a small town in miniature. They consist of classrooms, a hospital, offices, canteens, dormitories and other sleeping accommodation, workshops, a place of worship, a library, a gym. If I am even partly correct, there are far-reaching consequences in running a proper clinical trial into the effects of light and colour on the human psychophysiology.
With the rise in suicides in this country outside prisons, might research into light and colour not have implications for every school, university, hospital and shopping centre in Britain? This is not a new idea to the Germans, the Russians or the Americans.
Based on the research of Dr Fritz Hollwich and others, cool white fluorescents are legally banned in German hospitals. Americans developed a type of full spectrum lighting to facilitate human survival underground in the event of a nuclear holocaust. They grew roses and lettuces underground. The average English office or hospital cannot even nurture a houseplant under their lighting, that’s why they are all silk or plastic! And if a live plant can’t thrive what price a human?
Russians have been using full spectrum lighting with excellent results in factories where colds and viral infections had resulted in unacceptable levels of absenteeism.
But research is available in Britain too. As far back as in 1982, The Lancet published an article about research being undertaken at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and the University of Sydney’s melanoma clinic.
Dr Helen Shaw found that the people who had the lowest risk of developing skin cancer were those whose main outdoor activity was sunbathing. Twice the risk of developing melanomas was found in office workers who had to work indoors all day under fluorescent lights. She also demonstrated that office lighting caused mutations in cultures of animal cells.
I am not a scientist, I am a teacher, but international scientists at both the light conferences I have attended have significantly added to the body of information about the stress to the human organism caused by bad lighting. I believe that fluorescent tubes as most of us know them, are so detrimental to our health that they should carry a government health warning. But is anyone listening? How many people have to fall ill before that happens?
As a postscript – last year I was invited to speak at the International Light Conference at Queen’s College, Cambridge, on my failed attempt to get anyone to listen on the subject of prison lighting. Last week, I was contacted by Adolf Deppe – a prison counsellor at Bunbury prison in Western Australia who has already had work published on the subject of colour and light in prisons; he had read a mention of me in a book called The Healing Power of Light written by Primrose Cooper and published by Piatkas.
Mr Deppe got in touch because his prison management team thinks it can get the necessary funding to do the lighting trials in Australia. The English university professor from Surrey who would have assisted me is going to advise them. So we might get some action at last. But it will be on the other side of the world, where there is, in all senses of the word, an enlightened prison service.
Out of the blue, I have also lately been contacted by a Dutch prison governor who is interested in what I am saying about light, colour and education. At his invitation, I have paid his prison a visit.
Meanwhile in this country, our prison communities continue to function, not in the depths of Stygian gloom, but under harsh, glaring fluorescent lighting.
Michaele Wynn-Jones holds a B.Ed Hons and is a member of the International Association of Colour and the Association of Colourflair Consultants