Currently I am working on understanding more about the challenges of providing culturally competent nursing care in correctional settings. The population of patients we serve are not only culturally diverse but also some racial and ethnic groups are disproportionately represented. Many will agree that the prison, jail or detention facility is a culture as well, the culture of incarceration. Culture is described by Madeline Leininger, a well-known nursing theorist as “the learned, shared, and transmitted values, beliefs, norms, and lifeways that guide thinking, decisions, and actions…” (2006).
We all know that correctional settings have their own vocabulary, rules, practices and expectations that prisoners, correctional officers, nurses, and visitors must comply with to survive in the environment. These values, beliefs, norms and ways of being arise from philosophies about punishment in our society. The culture of incarceration and our beliefs about punishment in civil society affect how individual nurses provide “care” in the correctional setting.
Today I came across a tremendous article by Sally Gadow, Professor Emerita at University of Colorado College of Nursing that describes how different philosophies about punishment are manifest in the practice of correctional nurses (2003). Ascribing to a belief about the role of punishment and incarceration in society is necessary for nurses to address the ethical conflict between care and punishment.
It has made me consider how my nursing practice is affected by my beliefs about the role of incarceration and punishment. Here is a summary of the article.
Punishment as an immediate or reflexive consequence of wrong doing: The violation of community values, morays or laws results in an automatic or reflexive consequence for a wrongful act. In this system of beliefs the punishment occurs automatically and enforcement of the law or rule is unquestioned; there is no consideration of the circumstances or characteristics of the situation. Punishment for violation of norms in this system of beliefs require practices that exile the offender, deny freedom and loss of respect for the individual.
Nursing practices that are congruent with this philosophy about punishment include those that assert the authority of the law, morale principle or norm. In other words, nursing care that extends the interest of punishment. An extreme example would be participation in an execution. Other examples are writing infractions, participating in disciplinary hearings, collecting forensic evidence and approving use of force. When nurses comply with the expectations of the correctional system uncritically, they are at risk of providing care that advances the system perhaps at the expense of the individual. The American Nurses Association provides guidance in professional practice standard 11 on Communication stating that correctional nurses must be competent in questioning the rationale of processes and decisions when they do not appear to be in the best interest of the patient (2013).
Punishment as a logical consequence of wrong doing: An emotionally detached and reasoned approach to punishment and it’s meaning in relation to wrongdoing. Punishment still serves to exile the offender, deny freedom and express loss of respect for individuals who violate society norms and laws. Included in this category are the philosophies of “just desserts” which may also be known biblically as “an eye for an eye”. This is a belief that the degree of punishment should be equal to the severity of the violation. An example of this is the death penalty sentence for murder. Another belief is that of “fair play” when the benefits for a group (society) are achieved only when all comply with the rules. When someone fails to respect the rules a debt to society is owed and punishment is necessary to repay the debt. When we say that incarceration is the punishment, not the further denial of health care or programming during incarceration, this is an example of “fair play.” The last belief in this subset is that of “deterrence” which is to establish punishment severe enough to prevent harm or to protect the community. The punishment chosen is not constrained by the concept of fairness or reciprocity. An example of this would be three strikes laws which serve to deter recidivism and to remove repeat offenders from the community.
Correctional nursing practices consistent with this set of beliefs suppress emotion, embodiment and relationships with patients. The practice of nursing is with objective detachment. By being disengaged the nurse avoids being influenced in a negative or positive way by their personal knowledge of the offender. Many nurses adopt this approach to nursing practice believing that the best way to avoid being “conned” or manipulated by a patient is to rely solely on the nurse’s objective data discounting the patient’s report. With-holding analgesia because of a patient’s history of drug abuse is an example. Delays in responding to requests for health care attention because the problem is not significantly urgent would be another example. However there are numerous competencies listed in the ANA Scope and Standards of Practice (2013) that call for nurses to do more than adopt this disengaged approach to correctional nursing practice. The ANA standards for delivery of care in the correctional setting require nurses to elicit the patient’s personal experience and preferences with regard to illness, discomfort or disability and to partner with them to evaluate their care (Standards 1, 5-7) in a manner that preserves and protects the patient’s autonomy, dignity, rights, beliefs, and values.
Engagement as a paradox of punishment: Punishment is not an essential feature of justice but instead the focus is to restore trust and engagement between the offender and society. Detention may be necessary to engage the violator in the actions that are necessary to restore trust. The offender is not objectified and exiled but is made to relate in meaningful ways with the community. Examples of these beliefs in action include strengths based programming, drug and alcohol rehabilitation, probation and community corrections, half way houses and work camps. The meaning of the experience for offenders is the product of their engagement with others rather than an absolute defined by society.
A correctional nurse under this set of beliefs accepts the contradiction between care and punishment and does not need to embrace a particular viewpoint to resolve the conflict. The nurse assumes responsibility for defining their practice in the interest of the patient and does not accept someone else’s interpretation of how their practice should conform to some moral or ethical norm. Nursing actions are designed to assist prisoners to recover their ability to participate in the community and use their relationship with the patient as the crucible for this work. Engagement is characterized as accepting the possible validity of the patient’s perspective and the potential that the nurse’s opinion can be altered by the patient’s perspective. The nurse’s opinions or beliefs can be held firmly (not to be manipulated) but they are not absolute and open to the possibility of revision based upon experience with the patient or their situation. Dignity and respect for the patient is recognized as necessary to the caring relationship. An example is when nurses individualize a patient’s plan of care rather than apply the same intervention for all patients with the same condition. Patients are regarded as individuals rather than inmates. The ANA’s Standard 13 on Collaboration is explicit in that nurses promote engagement and participate in building consensus in the context of care for the patient (2013).
Conclusions: Correctional nurses often talk about the conflict between care and custody. Custody is a manifestation of beliefs about punishment. Nurses in correctional settings are influenced by the correctional culture, affecting their relationship with patients and ultimately their practice. I was surprised at the extent to which beliefs from all three of these descriptions have affected my practice environment. It is a relief to know that it is enough to recognize the care and custody conflict in order to find my way practically in this field. It is not necessary or even recommended that the conflict be resolved in order to provide ethical nursing care.
I suggest that correctional nurses reflect on the ways in which beliefs about punishment are manifest in their nursing practice. Reflection may suggest areas of practice that warrant more review and development. There may be aspects of practice that are unintentionally harmful or conflict with an ethical premise related to the nursing imperative of care. This material has been provided in the interest of stimulating dialogue among correctional nurses not to suggest a particular standard of practice.
For more on the ethical issues in providing nursing care in the correctional setting see Chapter 2 in our book, Essentials of Correctional Nursing. Order your copy directly from the publisher or from Amazon today!
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American Nurses Association (2013) Correctional Nursing: Scope & Standards of Practice. Silver Springs, MD: Nursesbooks.org.
Gadow, S. (2003) Restorative nursing: toward a philosophy of postmodern justice. Nursing Philosophy. 4: 161-167.
Leininger, M. M. & McFarland, M. R. (2006) Culture care diversity and universality: A world wide nursing theory. Boston, MA: Jones and Bartlett.