Was Florence Nightingale the First Correctional Nurse?

Florence Nightingale statueHappy Nurse’s Week! This week we celebrate nursing and modern nursing’s founder, Florence Nightingale; who’s birthday is May 12. Since 1974, May 12 has been deemed International Nurse’s Day and the week proceeding May 12 was coined National Nurses Week since 1994.

I must admit that I didn’t know much about Florence Nightingale other than a few ‘facts’ from my Nursing History course a couple decades ago. For example, I know she was the ‘Lady with the Lamp’  and attended the British soldiers in the Crimean War. I also remember that she was a great statistician and a determined woman; willing to risk her upper class status to help the suffering. What my recent search discovered, however, is that Florence Nightingale may, in fact, have been the first correctional nurse. Let me explain.

19th Century Work Houses

Workhouses were developed in England in the 1600’s as relief for the poor. In the 1700’s they became more punitive in order to serve as a deterrent; only accessed in desperation. By the mid-1800’s they had become little more than prisons.  Families were separated into dormitories; meals were provided in communal dining rooms; personal clothing replaced by uniforms. Sound familiar? Dickens wrote Oliver Twist during this time period and portrayed life for an orphan in a workhouse.  Here is a fascinating documentary on British Workhouses.

Workhouse Infirmary Overhaul

Nightingale’s Crimean War service in the 1850’s caught the hearts and minds of the British public through news portrayals. However, long before her war experience she expressed her concern for the health of the poor. As an upper-class lady in mid-19th century England, she had visited the work houses of London and later stated:

 “In days long ago, when I visited in one of the largest London workhouse infirmaries [Marylebone], I became fully convinced of this. How gladly would I have become the matron of a workhouse. But, of a visitor’s visits, the only result is to break the visitor’s heart. She sees how much could be done and cannot do it.” (5 February 1864, in Public Health Care)

Teaming up with philanthropist William Rathbone in the mid-1860’s she began to transform the Liverpool Workhouse Infirmary by adding trained nursing staff and establishing standard health care practices.

Be a Correctional Nurse like Flo

Florence Nightingale transformed the healthcare provided in the British Workhouses and therefore improved public health in 19th Century England. As correctional nurses, our work in providing quality health care in US jails and prisons improves the health of our patients and, therefore, the public health of the nation.

Nightingale’s ideas about nursing were captured in her classic work – Notes on Nursing. She said that nursing “…ought to signify the proper use of fresh air, light, warmth, cleanliness, quiet, and the proper selection and administration of diet – all at the least expense of vital power to the patient”

Consider how the living conditions of your patients are affecting their health and illness. What ways can you improve these conditions or help your patient overcome them? Here are some ideas

  • Teaching patients to make good food choices in the dining hall and commissary
  • Advocate for healthy food options in the commissary
  • Encourage all patients to exercise according to ability
  • Provide standard exercise plans that work in-cell (such as boot-camp basic drills) or in the exercise yard
  • Customize standard exercise plans with patients during encounters
  • Encourage good sleep hygiene practices whenever possible

Celebrate Nurse’s Week

Some see Nurses Week as a time for giveaways, nice food, and flowery words about the meaning of our work. Other see the week as an opportunity to complain about how unappreciated they are! I would like to suggest that Nurses Week is an opportunity to reignite our mission as correctional nurses.  Let’s all try to be more like Flo in our correctional nursing practice this week!

So, do you think Florence Nightingale was the first correctional nurse? Share your thoughts about being like Flo in the comments section of this post.

Photo Credit: © Tony Baggett

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