What do Correctional Nurses do?

Lorry Schoenly, PhD, RN is a nurse writer and educator with over 25 years of experience. She has been certified in five different clinical specialties including critical care and emergency nursing. Starting as an associate degree registered nurse, she continued her schooling in traditional and distance-learning settings to obtain a BSN, MSN, and PhD in nursing while working full-time and raising a family. Lorry teaches nursing in a variety of settings including webinars and online nursing courses.

Correctional nurses provide health care to individuals detained in jails and prisons. Correctional institutions are often invisible care settings as many people are not aware of the wide array of health services required for this community of patients. When I answered a job posting for my first position in corrections, it was the first time I had heard health care was delivered in these settings. It opened up a completely new world for me and I have never looked back.

There are over 2.3 million adult inmates in state and federal prisons and local jails according to the US Bureau of Justice. In the course of a given year, over 10 million people are detained in US jails. According to a recent report by Pew Charitable Trusts, a public policy foundation, one in every 100 American adults is now behind bars. These numbers translate to a significant population of inmate patients requiring ambulatory and sub-acute nursing care.

What to Expect

Correctional nurses provide care in a closed environment behind the secured walls of a correctional institution. For some the location is not an issue-others are not able to deal with the environment and the sound of the security door snapping shut. For correctional nurses, attention to personal safety at all times is imperative. Similar to practice in a mental health facility, nurses in corrections must guard against potential injury from their patients. Even so, custody officers are available at all times and work with health care staff to maintain a safe facility. In addition, unlike in an urban emergency room, security is plentiful and "dangerous" patients are easily identifiable.The level of security needed varies depending on an institution's classification: minimum, medium or maximum security or detention facility for women or juveniles. Each type of facility can have a wide range of nursing opportunities. The majority of correctional nursing care is considered ambulatory or sub-acute care; however, in states like California and New York positions are available in prison hospitals and geriatric centers.Some confuse correctional nursing and forensic nursing. While both specialties practice within the criminal justice context, correctional nurses provide nursing care to the inmate population without regard to the specific crimes or criminal status of the patient. On the other hand, forensic nurses focus on the crime, criminal or victim status of the patient, using their nursing expertise to gather evidence for the criminal case or to determine cause of death.

Hands-on Nursing

Many nursing processes have developed over time within correctional health care. The facility medical unit operates both like a physician's office and a mini emergency room. While nurses assess patients for basic health needs like colds, flues and rashes, they also often treat injuries and acute medical conditions like chest pain and asthma attacks. In addition, patients are scheduled for regular appointments to deal with chronic conditions such as hypertension and diabetes.

Medications within correctional institutions are administered several times a day. Due to safety concerns, even medications that a patient might self-administer outside of the institution require a nurse's supervision in a correctional facility.

How to Get Started

Most correctional facilities have an orientation program that includes security procedures and clinical processes. In addition, many facilities do not require prior correctional nursing experience, although training in both correctional and emergency nursing is a plus. Your best bet if you're looking to explore nursing options in correctional care is to locate the correctional facilities within driving distance of you and contact the health services administrator. Ask about openings at the facility and request a tour.

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