What Dynamic Security Looks Like

I’ve written a few times lately about what I’ve seen in visits to prisons in Norway and Belize, and how important it is that we do more than just tweak our approach to corrections around the edges. We have to look at more fundamental changes in prison and jail operations. 

Most of the feedback I’ve received has been very positive and encouraging. There are skeptics, however. When they hear terms like “the Norway System” or “Dynamic Security” they hear fashion statements—industry trends promoted by folks who haven’t spent time behind walls.   

If you knew what really happens inside a prison, you wouldn’t waste your time trying to “fix” corrections. Prisons just are what they are. 

I’ve spent quite a lot of time in prisons and I disagree. Like I’ve said before, I’m not coming at this as an academic or an activist, I’m coming at this as one who has served at every level in incarcerations, from rookie officer to warden to prisons system security director. It’s not just that I’ve seen Dynamic Security work in prisons abroad, I’ve implemented it in a facility under my authority. 

We just didn’t call it “Dynamic Security,” because I was just applying my experience from the Marine Corps. Let me explain. 

Commander’s Intent 

Every branch of the armed forces shares the same overall mission of defending America, but each also has its own traditions and operational practices, because each has its own competencies, strategies, and tactics. 

In the Marines, we were taught the concept of “commander’s intent,” which is defined as: 

“The commander‘s personal expression of the purpose of the operation. It must be clear, concise, and easily understood. It may also include how a commander envisions achieving a decision as well as the conditions that, when satisfied, accomplish the purpose.” 

In practice, this meant that when we had to accomplish a mission, we’d receive an operations order. It was a highly detailed plan that attempted to sketch out how the engagement would go. And because the leaders who drew these up knew their stuff, they also knew that even the best plans are bound to fail at some point. Knowing the operation’s ultimate goal and context allowed unit leaders and marines to operate on commander’s intent once things started falling apart—meaning, we could adjust tactics and proceed with the objective in mind. 

This was empowering, because we knew that things never go perfectly to plan and we were expected to adapt and do what was needed to achieve the objective. Marines were entrusted to make decisions in line with the commander’s intent, which requires trust at every level.   

Dynamic Security, Beta Version 

As a warden of a large prison in Florence, Arizona, I brought this concept to bear after some years of plans not quite playing out as expected. As a warden, I couldn’t see everything our officers and team were dealing with, but I could see that the adversarial approach to security wasn’t working. 

We relied on a tremendous amount of “static” security measures—the physical properties of the facility, everything from the walls, yard, and cells, to the technology that we used to monitor and augment security. We also followed procedures, including detailed protocol for everything from locking doors, radio communications, searching residences, and conducting counts to controlling resident movements and collecting laundry. These static and procedural security elements usually keep the incarcerated controlled, but there is a cost. 

I want to be clear: static and procedural security measures are essential. But the more you rely on these static elements by themselves, the more it enhances the us vs. them dynamic in the facility—setting officers and the incarcerated up as enemies. But the enemy isn’t the incarcerated, since we are there to protect society precisely by helping them to reform. It is called “corrections” for a reason. If there is an enemy, it’s recidivism. 

At this facility, our rates of resident violence, mental health crises, and other problems were fairly standard for a large facility. But the “standard” was terrible for both residents and officers. In the closed universe of the facility, the residents focused on survival, which creates incentives for them to separate by race for protection, reinforcing gang culture, staff manipulation, and the problems that inevitably follow. Officers were seen as the enforcers and not helpers. Our 21 percent officer turnover rate, while considered low in the industry (some facilities’ turnover rate exceeds 100 percent as some positions are refilled multiple times), meant that we had to regularly host Corrections Academies to train new officers, while those who remained had a generally poor experience and quality of life. 

Studies have shown that people follow—or quit—people. Staff were leaving due to inconsistency and lack of purpose, but more importantly they were leaving their direct supervisors, who, in all fairness, were not given a fair chance at success because they had minimal leadership training.  

So, when I started implementing changes that challenged officers and leaders to take ownership of their unit and empowered them to do so, it wasn’t because I’d read it in an industry journal. I was just applying a corrections version of Commander’s Intent. Basically, the policy had four key components. 

Consistency: Officers would stay on a post for at least six months. There would be no transfers unless approved from the top. The idea was to get the officers to own their unit and know the residents as people, in addition to training them to read what was going on, such as when a resident was experiencing a mental health crisis. A new officer won’t recognize serious changes in mood, health, or other factors.  

Empowerment: Unit leaders were given a say in unit policy and training to deal in a more direct, personal, and professional way with residents. They were coached to lead by positive reinforcement. They also had to address conflict and coach staff who were struggling rather than just shipping them off to another unit. Most importantly, the lower-level leaders had to learn leadership skills and create a positive work environment while coaching and holding accountable the challenged staff. They knew senior leaders and I would support changes that they felt were needed to make them successful. They were also encouraged to make decisions and mistakes as part of their growth as leaders.  

Measurement: We made it a priority to measure department and unit outcomes down to the officer level, empowering them to improve their performance and impact on people. This brought purpose and ownership to their assigned post. In addition, we gave each unit a budget of their own, and they had to report to myself and senior staff monthly. As you can imagine, this wasn’t warmly received at first. The leaders were not used to being rewarded or held accountable for their teams’ outcomes.   

Leadership Training: I personally conducted full day monthly offsite leadership training programs. All supervisors not critical to shift were required to attend. While I personally taught most of the classes, we also selected department heads and outside experts to present ideas and information to the group. We conducted round table discussions so the  leaders could share ideas and offer solutions to our problems. We also invited officers to attend some sessions and share their experiences and recommendations.   

How it went 

Monthly budget and unit metrics reports to peers and superiors were pretty stressful at first. It took time for them to get used to being accountable and rewarded for their unit/department metrics. But several interesting things started to happen. Within a few months, all of the metrics had gone from red to green—meaning that they were performing much more efficiently and successfully. By taking ownership over their area, they saw where they could make a difference. 

One of the metrics that improved dramatically was a decrease in staff assaults and detainee-based violence, which truly changed the tenor of those meetings. Successful  leaders were able to explain with pride to their peers what they were seeing and doing, and how they improved their outcomes. Others could learn and apply lessons to their departments. Units developed a sense of pride and purpose and were given incentives to keep improving. 

This isn’t to say everything was easy or perfect. Sometimes there were upticks in violence or other metrics. We’re dealing with human beings after all, not robots. But when these upticks occurred, we knew it and could address it. 

After six months, we had almost zero violence in the facility and our use of restricted housing declined significantly. As a Warden, I spent most of my days walking the facility helping staff and detainees vs. always fighting fires. Our officer turnover rate dropped from 21 percent to 8 percent, and we didn’t have to hold an officer training academy for three years (yes, three years) because with the limited turnover we had a waiting list of experienced officers who wanted to transfer to our facility. Word was spreading to other prisons that we were doing something different, and they wanted to be a part of it.  

This was an operational culture change, based on the idea that everyone involved has dignity and that the adversarial model of incarceration was leading to a range of unintended consequences that hurt all involved. I later came across more scholarly takes on Dynamic Security—this 2015 “Handbook” from the UN has some of the better definitions and surrounding context for the idea—and have learned more about what is working where it is being put into practice. 

Dynamic Security is neither a fad nor a magic pill that solves all the problems involved in corrections. But it is, in my opinion, a dramatically better way of treating officers and residents, and it’s time to see it applied on a much wider basis. That is Social Purpose Corrections’ goal. 

Brian Koehn is the Founder and CEO of Social Profit Corrections.