Colby Braun: To the Inmates at the Pen, He’s “Colby”

“What the business is about is trying to give people an opportunity to change, to give them choices, and to do that in a safe, controlled environment.”

If it hadn’t been for a tight job market in Dickinson in 1996 when he completed college, Colby Braun, warden of North Dakota State Penitentiary since July 2014, might not have found his true vocation of working in the field of corrections, where, he said, he’s “enjoyed every piece of it.”

Armed with a degree in elementary education from Dickinson State University, Braun, who grew up on a small sheep ranch north of Bowman, attempted to secure work as a teacher. Finding nothing and frustrated, he applied for a job as a correctional officer working for a federal program that incarcerated juveniles at Southwest Multi-County Correctional Center in Dickinson. Fatefully, he got the job, marking the beginning of a 20-year-career in corrections.

Following promotions in Dickinson, in 2004 Braun was named warden of the Dakota Women’s Correctional and Rehabilitation Center in New England. In 2010, he became warden of transitional facilities for the ND Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (DOCR), a job which included overseeing Missouri River Correctional Center, five contract re-entry centers, and a substance abuse treatment facility. Braun was appointed warden at the “state pen” July 2014.

Reflecting the justice reform movement across America today, Braun is a strong proponent of focusing on inmates as people, not prisoners. He told City Magazine the most rewarding project he’s been a part of so far at the pen is reducing the number of inmates in the isolation unit, also known as restrictive housing, or “the hole.” In the last one and a-half years, the number has gone from over 100 down to 20 to 22.

“By putting people in isolation, we’re making them worse,” Braun said. “You can’t put someone in a box and expect them to be different.” He added that the new approach hasn’t made the penitentiary any less safe. The day he was interviewed, Braun said the population at the pen was 722. The new prison was built to accommodate 800. “Luckily, we’ve seen a flattening out—800 is jam-packed, 740 is when we’ve got to open up another unit, an old overflow unit.”

Braun explained he’s in the business of “changing behavior.” It roils him when he hears people refer to correctional officers as “prison guards. “What the business is about is trying to give people an opportunity to change, to give them choices, and to do that in a safe, controlled environment.”