‘Blue Room’ Could Help Make Prisons Safer

Inside Snake River: The Blue Room

Captain Randy Gilbertson of the Oregon Department of Corrections watches a nature video in the Blue Room at the Snake River Correctional Institution. (Photo by Beth Nakamura/The Oregonian)

By Marcia C. Dibble

Solitary confinement can lead to madness or suicide for some inmates, or exacerbate behavioral problems for inmates who already were mentally ill when they entered the prison system. For the people whose job it is to supervise them, the assignment can be dangerous. University of Utah Professor Nalini Nadkarni’s innovative “Blue Room,” named one of Time magazine’s “25 Best Inventions of 2014,” could help the situation.

Nadkarni developed the Blue Room with Oregon’s Snake River Correctional Facility to offer a taste of calming nature to prison inmates kept in solitary confinement. The Blue Room is currently being used at the facility, with promising results.

Snake River Correctional Institution

An officer in Oregon’s Snake River Correctional Facility unlocks handcuffs on an inmate in the facility’s Intensive Management Unit, or solitary confinement. (Photo by Benjamin Drummond)

Inmates in the facility’s Intensive Management Unit (IMU, or solitary confinement) spend 23 hours, 20 minutes a day alone in cells. Some prisoners may be put in solitary because they are combative but otherwise behave normally. After months in confinement, however, they are very prone to mental illness, including highly destructive and suicidal behavior. This puts not only themselves but the facility’s employees in grave danger.

Nadkarni recorded a short TED talk in 2010 proposing the possibility of using nature images to calm inmates. Two years later, an officer at Snake River saw the talk and began discussing it with his supervisors. They eventually contacted Nadkarni about it, proposing the use of videos instead of Nadkarni’s initial suggestion of still photos. The prison got Oregon Department of Corrections approval, renovated a recreation room, and purchased equipment. Nadkarni and a colleague, marine biologist and documentary filmmaker Tierney Thys, helped the facility obtain videos from National Geographic and other sources. In early 2013, the Blue Room—named for the glow of videos on the rec room wall—opened.

Snake River Correctional Institution

An inmate in Oregon’s Snake River Correctional Facility watches nature videos in the Blue Room. (Photo by Benjamin Drummond)

Officers who work with the inmates assess which ones might benefit from time in the Blue Room, and inmates can choose from more than 30 nature videos, including a tropical beach, a forest stream, and waves lapping a pier. Lance Schnacker, a researcher with the Oregon Youth Authority, reviewed the disciplinary records of the Snake River inmates in the year preceding and following the introduction of the Blue Room. He found that those who didn’t get time in the room had more disciplinary infractions, while those who did had a slight reduction.

Nadkarni plans to study the effectiveness of the Blue Room beginning this spring. “It has been a very long process, because we are working the most sequestered population of prisoners, which are considered a ‘vulnerable’ group,” she notes. The researchers—Nadkarni, biologist/filmmaker Thys, eco-psychologist Patricia H. Hasbach, and youth researcher Schnacker—plan to interview staff members as well as inmates, pore through mental health and disciplinary records, and develop case studies. If their findings bear out their theory—that nature imagery calms the prisoners—corrections officials and psychologists across the nation could have an important new tool for managing solitary confinement.

To read more about Nadkarni’s work with prison inmates and as a forest biologist, read the Continuum feature “At Home in the Trees” in the magazine’s Summer 2013 issue.

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Self-Repairing Software Tackles Malware

software- Eric Eide

University of Utah professor Eric Eide, in his department’s “Machine Room” of computers. (Photo by Dan Hixon)

University of Utah computer scientists have developed software that not only detects and eradicates never-before-seen viruses and other malware, but also automatically repairs damage caused by them. The software then prevents the invader from ever infecting the computer again.

Called A3, for Advanced Adaptive Applications, the software suite is designed to protect servers or similar business-grade computers that run on the Linux operating system. Eric Eide, a U research assistant professor of computer science, is leading the University’s A3 team with U computer science associate professor John Regehr. Other U members of the A3 team include research associate David M. Johnson MS’10, systems programmer Mike Hibler, and former graduate student Prashanth Nayak. The four-year A3 project was co-developed with Massachusetts-based defense contractor Raytheon BBN.

The military has an interest in A3 to enhance cybersecurity for its mission-critical systems. While the A3 team currently has no plans to adapt the software for home computers or laptops, Eide says this could be possible in the future. The A3 software is open source, meaning it is free for anyone to use, but Eide believes many of the A3 technologies could be incorporated into commercial products.

Unlike a normal virus scanner on consumer PCs that compares a catalog of known viruses to something that has infected the computer, A3 can detect new, unknown viruses or malware automatically by sensing that something is occurring in the computer’s operation that is not correct. It then can stop the virus, approximate a repair for the damaged software code, and learn to never let that bug enter the machine again. To demonstrate A3’s effectiveness, the team used the infamous software bug Shellshock in a test for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). A3 discovered the Shellshock attack on a web server and repaired the damage in four minutes, Eide says.

New Material for Better Substance Detection

bomb-sniffer-Ling Zang

Ling Zang holds a prototype of a substance detector his team developed. (Photo by Dan Hixon)

University of Utah engineers have developed a new material for handheld sensors that will be quicker and better than previous methods of detecting explosives, deadly gases, and illegal drugs.

The U sensors use a new type of carbon nanotube and are equipped for “sniffing” or swabbing to detect toxic gases such as sarin or chlorine, or explosives such as TNT. Vaporsens, a University spin-off company, plans to produce the first commercial sensors this year, says co-founder Ling Zang, a professor of materials science and engineering. Zang was senior author of a study of the technology that was published in the journal Advanced Materials, and Ben Bunes, a doctoral student in materials science and engineering, was a co-author. Bunes and Zang, who is also with the Nano Institute of Utah, conducted the research with postdoctoral fellow Miao Xu and doctoral student Yaqaiong Zhang.

Carbon nanotubes are known for their strength and high electrical conductivity and are used in products from baseball bats to lithium-ion batteries and touchscreen computer displays, but not in current substance detectors. Zang, a professor with USTAR, the Utah Science Technology and Research economic development initiative, says the Utah technology has several advantages over the current detectors, including being both faster and more accurate. Sensors using the new technology “could be used by the military, police, first responders, and private industry focused on public safety,” he says. The new nanotubes also could be incorporated into flexible solar panels that could be rolled up and stored or even “painted” onto clothing such as a jacket.

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