What career did you want for yourself when you graduated from nursing school? Did know you wanted to be a correctional nurse? You probably never heard of it, right? This is me back in 1973 and I had never heard of correctional nursing either. Most correctional nurses will tell you that they never planned to be in this field. The reasons they give for trying it out included:
Wanting to try something different.
It was close to home and convenient.
They knew someone else who was a correctional nurse and suggested it.
I made the change because I was bored with hospital-based psychiatric care. The opportunity to develop a health care program for offenders in state prisons came at the perfect time and I took on the challenge and have had a chance to make a difference in the lives of those who could not do so for themselves. I thought I would stay about five years and move on, but it has been 31 years now. The next several posts will explore the challenges of becoming a correctional nursing specialist, the features that distinguish the specialty and explore why nurses stay in the field.
Nurses have advocated for the health and well-being of prisoners practically since the beginning of time. These include Florence Nightingale, who did some of her best work in England’s poor houses in the mid-nineteenth century as well prisoners during the Crimean war, Clara Barton, who cared for prisoners of war in the Civil War, and Dorothea Dix who was responsible for prison reform in the 1800s. The American Nurses Association has considered correctional nursing a specialty since 1985 and publishes standards for the scope of professional practice in correctional nursing.
The Institute of Medicine report The Future of Nursing: Leading Change, Advancing Health (2010) acknowledges correctional nursing when commenting on diversity in the nursing profession, stating that nurses will be present anywhere there are people who have healthcare needs. Those of you who watched the movie, The American Nurse, met Tonia Faust, a correctional nurse, and hospice coordinator at the Louisiana State Penitentiary. Four of the 75 nurses portrayed in the book, The American Nurse, were providing health care in correctional facilities at the time they were interviewed. We don’t really know how many correctional nurses there are because many state boards of nursing don’t include this as an option when indicating your place of employment or area of practice.
My co-contributor, Lorry Schoenly, likens the transition to correctional nursing to the popular tale, The Wizard of Oz when Dorothy Gale, walks out into the Land of Oz, after her prairie home landed on the Wicked Witch of the East, following a tornado ride from Kansas. Our first experiences with correctional officers, handcuffs, sally ports, metal detectors, crossing the yard and pop counts brings to mind Dorothy’s admonition to her little dog “This isn’t Kansas anymore, Toto!” In fact Lorry, published a book by the title, The Wizard of Oz Guide to Correctional Nursing, to help nurses manage the transition to this very different setting.
Well the first cultural challenge for nurses after they have arrived in the Land of Correctional Oz is the realization and understanding that our services are secondary to enforcing the law and protecting the public. This is the primary purpose of incarceration in the United States. The people whose health we are responsible for, are being detained against their free will, as punishment. Even so, the Supreme Court has granted prisoners a constitutional right to health care under the 8th amendment. Failure to do so is considered “cruel and unusual punishment.” The court’s reasoning was that “it is but just, that the public be required to care for the prisoner, who cannot, by reason of the deprivation of his liberty, care for himself.”
This is not just a cultural challenge but one of the distinctive features of correctional nursing practice. The first part of the ANA definition of correctional nursing, is that it takes place at the intersection of an individual and their involvement with the justice system. Legal precedents have been the primary means by which the delivery of health care in the correctional system has been shaped.
The courts have established that inmates have the right to health care during incarceration which includes:
- Unimpeded access to care
- Care that is ordered must be provided
- Entitled to professional clinical judgment
These three rights are referred to as the three legged stool of the Eighth Amendment rights to prisoner health care and they are operative in almost every aspect of a correctional nurse’s daily practice.
Here is an example of the application of these rights to health care from my early experience in correctional nursing. In this instance, three inmates, working in the print shop, drank printing fluid, in an attempt to get high. All three became sick but they did not seek medical attention because the nursing staff would have to report them to security for stealing the printer fluid. One inmate died as a result of the delay in treatment. The courts found a violation of the eighth amendment because the inmates’ access to health care attention was impeded, due to the threat of being reported and subsequently disciplined. In this case, a correctional facility’s requirement for reporting prohibited conduct impeded access to care and resulted in a finding of “cruel and unusual punishment”. The legal right to health care, its practical interpretation and application in the correctional setting is one of the distinguishing features of correctional nursing.
Do you have some good examples of how legal considerations impact the practice of correctional nursing? If so please share by responding in the comments section of this post.
If you would like to read more about legal considerations in correctional nursing please see Chapter 3 written by Jacqueline Moore in the Essentials of Correctional Nursing; the first and only textbook written so far about the practice of nursing in this specialized field. Order a copy directly from the publisher or from Amazon today!
If you would like to order a copy of The Wizard of Oz Guide to Correctional Nursing go to Lorry’s website, Correctionalnurse.net to order through Amazon.
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