Reshaping the Role of Correctional Officers

By Frank Greene

The Key to Creating Positive Environments

In the pursuit of a restorative and healing justice system, the relationship between building environments and operational culture presents a key opportunity for driving positive change.

Architectural design can provide humane environments that inspire hope, while operational culture can thrive in these buildings by cultivating respectful relationships between correctional officers and people in custody. This, in turn, promotes well-being and positive long-term outcomes.

The traditional U.S. model for operational culture has emphasized security and control. This model was shaped by the increase of people in custody during the 1980s and 1990s, an era defined by mass incarceration. According to The Sentencing Project, the U.S. prison population increased seven-fold between 1973 and 2023, with its peak in 2009. The imperative to house more people at lesser cost led to a warehousing approach with severe overcrowding, making a focus on rehabilitation impossible.

2023 marks the 50th year since the U.S. prison population began its unprecedented surge, and with declining populations, a transformative shift in operational culture is now underway.

In 2010, the number of people in U.S. prisons began a marginal decline, as recorded by the Bureau of Justice Statistics. 2020 alone demonstrated a remarkable 14% drop, triggered by accelerated releases during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic. With this decline comes a new sense that the system can do better, with environments and operations more precisely calibrated to the actual risks and needs of people in custody.

Shifting Focus from Control to Care

Environment cues behavior, and normative environments cue normal behavior. Correctional agencies today aspire safe, comfortable spaces with daylight and views, alongside daily programmatic activities focused on health, education and preparation for return to society.

Buildings can help drive change. With a maximum lifecycle of 50 years, many legacy jail structures in the U.S. are obsolete and in need of replacement. As a result, STV has planned and designed more than 400 correctional and justice facilities, promoting humane environments based on treatment and rehabilitation. We have pioneered new directions in design, featuring natural light, security without bars and open sightlines for maximum visibility.

Yet, our most successful buildings have been amplified by a complementary shift in operational culture. Ongoing designs, such as the Baltimore Therapeutic Treatment Center and Macomb County Jail, are bolstered by agencies that are focused on shifting the emphasis of their operational missions from control to care.

We can achieve better restorative outcomes when operational culture is also set up to maximize the humane building environments we create.

Learning from the Scandinavian Model

To address the twin legacies of harsh environments and oppressive procedures, many correctional agencies in the U.S. have closely studied Scandinavian prisons, including the culture of the line staff who interact daily with the people in custody.

Safety is the foundation of all restorative operations. When people in custody are supported and protected from harm, their everyday interactions with correctional officers can be respectful and normalized.

In the Scandinavian model, the provision of safety is founded in the belief that a person in custody is still ‘one of us,’ not an ‘other,’ no matter the offense. The Norwegian Correctional Service formally adopted this mindset in the early 1990s with a series of rigorous reforms focused on rehabilitation. The agency offered daily training and educational programs to people in custody and completely overhauled the role of prison guards.

Today, the Norwegian Correctional Service operates on the principle of normality, where the only punishment is the restriction of liberty and sentenced offenders retain all other rights. Offenders are placed in the lowest possible security regime, with the goal that life inside will resemble life outside as much as possible.

The result? Norway’s recidivism rate dropped from about 60-70% in the 1990s to 20% today, one of the lowest in the world, according to The Borgen Project.

The U.S. can also leverage the training practices for correctional officers in Norway. Officers go through a two-year college education, where they receive full pay and are taught in various subjects like psychology, criminology, law, human rights and ethics. With supplementary courses, they can achieve a bachelor’s degree in Correctional Studies. The career path is professionalized and financially attractive, resulting in effective recruitment, high job satisfaction and high retention.

Transforming Operational Culture in the U.S.

A positive work environment, where staff feel safe and empowered, cultivates well-being, rehabilitation and positive outcomes for individuals in custody. That’s why transforming the culture of public safety work, particularly the role and perception of correctional officers, is essential to the pivot from control to care.

In the U.S., public safety agencies face a challenging talent recruitment and retention environment. A 2019 report by the National Institute of Justice outlines severe workforce challenges with correctional officer vacancy rates approaching 50% and annual turnover rates as high as 55% in some places. Individuals are deterred by unsafe working conditions and physically harsh environments, as well as overwhelming workloads, overtime demands and uncompetitive compensation. Public perception of corrections as an unskilled occupation can exacerbate the challenge.

People want their work to be meaningful. While benefit packages and job security are important, a sense that their choice of vocation is worthy of their commitment is essential to elevating the stature of a correctional officer.

The operational model of direct supervision is the foundation of a safe, humane correctional facility. Developed by the U.S. Justice Department’s National Institute of Corrections in the 1970s, it places officers in an open dayroom, where they aware of the conversations and interactions of the people in their care and observing their daily routine of meals, programs, and recreations. This model enjoys widespread institutional support today, but the most progressive facilities go even further. The next generation is dynamic security, where correctional officers not only constantly supervise but are part of the daily routines of the people in their care, developing a rapport based on constant interaction and mutual respect.

With lower jail and prison populations in many jurisdictions, and outmoded facilities in need of replacement, the time has come to complement new buildings with a new way to see correctional officers: one that is based on humane interactions with the people in their care, inspiring a sense of hope and healing in the lives of those most in need.

Frank J. Greene, FAIA, OAA, NOMA, is an STV vice president and architecture chief and leads the firm’s justice practice. With more than 40 years of experience in the justice industry, he is a leader in the courts and corrections field across North America. Based in New York City, he is an active member of the American Institute of Architects Academy of Architecture for Justice and a Correctional News Editorial Advisory Board member.

Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared in the July/August issue of Correctional News.