Explaining what is it like to be a correctional nurse?

Tonia FaustAll correctional nurses have the experience of explaining to another nurse what it is like to be a nurse who practices in a prison, jail, juvenile detention facility, police lock up, or customs enforcement facility. Many of our fellow nurses respond to our answer with comments or questions like…”I had no idea nurses could be found in there.” “How can you provide care for a murderer or a rapist?” or “Do you feel safe?”

I am having the same experience now as I get ready to give a presentation at the Arizona Nurses Association later this month about the cultural challenges in correctional nursing. This audience will be nurses but very few of them will be correctional nurses. The three cultural challenges for correctional nurses that I am going to describe are:

  1. Balancing the security imperative with the constitutional right to care.
  2. Diversity and disparity of the patient population.
  3. Developing a practice that embraces caring and remains true to professional principles.

In preparing, I went back to The American Nurse which I discussed in an earlier post. This book is a collection of seventy-five interviews with nurses in the United States. It was published in 2012 as part of The American Nurse Project. There were five nurses in this group who talked about their work as correctional nurses. I thought I could use their stories as a starting point to describe the tremendous opportunities in correctional nursing.

While searching through the book I found another resource, a documentary film by the same name that was produced about two years after the book was published. A correctional nurse, Tonia Faust, is one of five nurses portrayed in the film; she is responsible for the hospice program at Louisiana State Penitentiary. She is pictured at the top of this column. It turns out the film will be shown at the conference the night before my presentation, so by the time I talk about correctional nursing every nurse in attendance will have been introduced to at least one already!

In the film Ms. Faust gives a tremendous interview and we are right there with her as she dresses a wound and talks with the offenders in the infirmary. We meet one of the inmate hospice workers and observe the caring he expresses as he helps to shower an inmate. I would think any nurse could identify with the intimacy and humanity of care so apparent in the film taken from inside the penitentiary. Next time you have someone ask what you are doing as a nurse working in a correctional facility have them watch the film, An American Nurse directed by Carolyn Jones.

The best news is the website for The American Nurse Project is fabulous and this post is written to suggest that every correctional nurse visit it. You don’t have to wait because the film can be downloaded for only $9.99 and watched multiple times thereafter or it can be rented and viewed for a period of five days for only $3.99. The other four nurses portrayed in the film work in labor and delivery, home health, a nursing home and for the military. Two of the five nurses are men. The film really does a great job confronting many of the stereotypes there are about nurses and their careers. An hour and a half of CE is also available after watching the film. Finally there is also a blog that that provides more details about filming of each of these fabulous nurses.

Nurses responsible for new employee orientation or professional development should consider using the film to generate discussion about the expression of caring in the correctional environment, what it means to be non-judgmental as a nurse and what it is like to feel purposeful as a correctional nurse. There are two study guides available without cost on the website; one for the general community and one for nurses. Both provide good material for discussion and reflection on correctional nursing practice.

I watched The American Nurse last night and cried. I was so proud of the nurses portrayed in the film, but especially Tonia. I don’t think that others will ever think correctional nurses aren’t among the best the profession has after watching this film. As one commenter said “My eyes were really opened by the nurse who worked in prison. You could see how much she cared about the patients. I learned that there are more opportunities in nursing than just the traditional settings.”

Take time at least to see the film (79 minutes) and get an hour and a half of CE. Does watching the film help you answer the question when others ask you “What is it like to be a correctional nurse?” Tonia Faust talks about having a purpose for being at the Louisiana State Penitentiary and it has made me think about my purpose as a correctional nurse. What is yours? Share your thoughts about the film as well as the questions posed here by responding in the comments section of this post.

For more about the opportunities and challenges in correctional nursing order a copy of our book, Essentials of Correctional Nursing directly from the publisher or from Amazon today!


Photo credit: americannurseproject.com

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