Does pink pacify prisoners? The criminal allure of Baker-Miller Pink

If you get yourself thrown into prison in the US or Switzerland, you may find that your cell walls have been painted pink.

This is because a particular shade of pink has been reported to calm us down and reduce aggression.

But does it work? And if so, how?

Baker-Miller Pink, also known as Drunk Tank Pink, is a strong shade of pink made by mixing a gallon of white paint with a pint of red. It’s not unlike the colour of Pepto-Bismol.

It had calming properties attributed to it in the late 1970s by Alexander Schauss, director of the American Institute for Biosocial Research in Tacoma, Washington.

Schauss was fascinated by the work of a Swiss psychiatrist named Max Lüscher, who found that the colours we prefer depend upon our mood at that time. Lüscher would show his patients a series of colour cards, and the ones they favoured indicated their mental state — blues indicated they were feeling content, reds indicated they were feeling self confident etc.

Schauss flipped this around, hoping that by exposing someone to certain colours he could actively influence their mental state — perhaps even their physical state.

He conducted a series of experiments where he prompted 153 men to stare at a piece of blue or pink cardboard for one minute, before conducting a strength test on them. After looking at the pink cardboard, the men reported a loss of strength of up to 26% compared to when they looked at the blue cardboard. Schauss reported that one particular shade of pink led to “a marked effect on lowering the heart rate, pulse and respiration as compared to other colours”. In other words, it calmed the men down.

“Even if a person tries to be angry or aggressive in the presence of pink, he can’t,” Schauss claimed. “The heart muscles can’t race fast enough. It’s a tranquilising colour that saps your energy.”

Bolstered by his findings, in 1979 Schauss persuaded Gene Baker and Ron Miller, the directors of a Naval correctional institute in Seattle, to paint two of their cells this shade of pink to determine its effect on their inmates. The colour was subsequently named Baker-Miller Pink.

Inmates were put into the pink cells for 15 minutes at a time in the hope that the colour would somehow pacify them. After nine months, the facility reported no incidents of erratic or violent behaviour among these prisoners. The experiment was declared a success.

Baker-Miller Pink had an influence on Kendall Jenner

A number of prisons across the US subsequently painted their cells Baker-Miller Pink, hoping to replicate its calming effect. These included jails in South Carolina, Texas, Arizona and Washington State, plus a juvenile detention centre in San Bernardino, California.

If this colour had an effect in prisons, what could it do in other settings?

As soon as Alexander Schauss reported his findings, the University of Iowa felt it was time to redecorate their locker room for visiting football teams. They painted it Baker-Miller Pink with the intention of sapping the strength of their opponents.

It received another major endorsement in 2017 when social influencer Kendall Jenner explained to her tens of millions of followers why her living room wall was now pink.

“Baker-Miller Pink is the only colour scientifically proven to calm you AND suppress your appetite,” she said. “I was like, ‘I NEED this colour in my house!’”

Hey I can understand the enthusiasm — who doesn’t love the idea of a colour having such magical properties? But sadly, that’s looking at Baker-Miller Pink through rose-tinted glasses.

To date, no other research has supported Alexander Schauss’ findings that Baker-Miller Pink can calm people down or weaken them.

A 1988 study by James Gilliam and David Unruh enlisted 54 men to repeat Strauss’ original pink and blue cardboard experiment — but it could not replicate his results. Further research is needed, the authors noted before warning:

“In search of techniques and materials to utilise in the management of disruptive, disturbing, and violent behaviour, professionals should exercise caution in the adoption of methods and materials based upon the earlier reported positive effects of exposure to the Baker-Miller Pink colour.”

Nevertheless the idea remained alluring, and in 2007 Swiss psychologist Daniela Späth mixed up Cool Down Pink, a lighter shade of Baker-Miller Pink. She persuaded 10 prisons across Switzerland to redecorate using this colour in the hope it would pacify their inmates.

But as with Baker-Miller Pink, the benefits of Cool Down Pink remain unproven. In 2014 Swiss research by psychologists Oliver Genschow and Michaela Wänke and prison workers Thomas Noll and Robert Gersbach was unable to confirm that the colour pink reduced aggression.

Despite the fact that their findings have never been replicated, Alexander Schauss and Daniela Späth are by no means alone in believing that certain colours can influence our mental state. Companies of all sizes agonise over the selection of their brand colours, hoping that the correct shade of yellow or purple will induce a positive response within their target audience.

Colour psychology is taken extremely seriously by branding consultants

Yet while colour psychology can give us a broad indication as to how the general public may respond to a particular colour, in practice our response varies greatly from person to person and from culture to culture.

For example: in western culture, pink is currently more strongly associated with women than with men, as being somehow feminine. This may be in part because the Nazis (arbitrarily) chose pink to indicate which prisoners in their concentration camps were gay or bisexual. Gay liberation has now reclaimed the colour for ourselves.

The 2014 Swiss research noted that our cultural associations with the colour pink may be more significant than its shade.

“One could speculate whether pink detention cells may even have negative (psychological) effects,” its authors wrote.

“Past research has indicated that the colour pink is mainly associated with girls and women and more preferred by girls and women than by men. Being placed in a pink detention cell may thus attack inmates’ perceived manhood and/or cause feelings of humiliation.”

This was definitely the intention in Maricopa County Jail, Phoenix, where Republican Joe Arpaio — the self-proclaimed “toughest sheriff in America” — imposed a series of humiliations upon prisoners. Not only did he grant minimal rations and force inmates to work outdoors day after day in blistering heat, Arpaio made them wear a prison uniform of bright pink underpants and socks. In 2005 he ordered nearly 700 prisoners to march four blocks to another jail while chained together in pink handcuffs and wearing only their pink underwear.

In 2015, Grovetown Jail in Columbia County followed Arpaio’s lead and swapped its standard orange prison fatigues for ones coloured bright pink. Sgt Cameron Brown explained: “Wearing the pink lets them know that we run the jail and they don’t.”

Maricopa inmates were made to wear bright pink underpants and socks

Neither Maricopa nor Grovetown Jail kitted their inmates out in Baker-Miller Pink or Cool Down Pink, and neither intended for the colour to calm its prisoners. Instead they used pink as a provocation, hoping its stereotypical association with femininity would emasculate and humiliate the men they forced to wear it. Crucially, neither prison could demonstrate that forcing their inmates to wear pink uniforms made them less likely to reoffend.

You would have thought by now that the writing was on the wall for Baker-Miller Pink. Not even close. Despite its unproven effectiveness, Baker-Miller Pink continues to be used to decorate mental health facilities, panic rooms, airport security zones and ambulance interiors in the hope it will calm the people inside them. Maybe it does have a more calming effect for some people than a soft green or baby blue, maybe not.

One thing is clear: pink prison cells are another example of us seeking a simple, quick and cheap solution to a complex social challenge. Why bother looking into what makes someone aggressive or leads them to become criminally drunk when you can simply chuck ’em into a pink prison? No need to invest in long-term psychological support — just buy a few cans of pink paint.

But no matter how many coats of Baker-Miller Pink you slap on, you can’t simply cover up the grit of human reality.

  • Need something to calm you down after reading that? My science-backed Baker-Miller Pink Cadillac playlist is proven to make you calmer and less aggressive. Maybe.

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Tom Bishop

Hackney, east London; has written for BBC News website, Gay Times, Diva & Attitude.