The Challenges and Distinguishing Features of Correctional Nursing: Part 3

Tonia FaustThe last two weeks we explored two of the challenges in becoming a correctional nurse and how once mastered, the results are practices that distinguish correctional nursing from other areas of nursing practice. A final cultural challenge for nurses in the land of correctional Oz, a phrase Lorry coined for nurses new to the specialty, is to develop a caring practice, consistent with professional principles. Many correctional nurses lament “how can I be caring when the place where I work exists for the purpose of punishment?” In correctional settings, staff are cautioned against touching an offender, unless it is necessary to perform some task, such as a pat down search. Some places go as far as considering touch, an act for which staff can be disciplined.

Common expressions of caring in nursing such as therapeutic touch or an empathic disclosure of personal information are often prohibited or extremely limited in the correctional setting. These acts earn a nurse derision from other staff, particularly custody staff, and they will be taunted as a “chocolate heart”, “hug-a-thug” or “convict lover.” Correctional officers will not trust nurses who violate the facility’s expectations about maintaining boundaries, to act professionally in other encounters.

Caring however remains a central tenet of correctional nursing and is vital to the therapeutic relationship. Another distinguishing characteristic of the specialty, is that the expression of caring, emphasizes interpersonal communication rather than physical contact and use of self to convey empathy. Correctional nurses express caring when their interactions with patients convey respect, are nonjudgmental, acknowledge the validity of the patient’s subjective experience, are not rushed and are done in the genuine interest of the patient (ANA 2013).

Correctional nurses have described how, it is first, necessary to establish a professional relationship with custody staff before they can negotiate delivery of compassionate nursing care. This means having acting, behaving and speaking in a ways that are consistent with professional practice standards. The most recent version of the Scope and Standards of Practice for Correctional Nursing were published in 2013 and now are identical to those of nursing generally. So a correctional nurse practices as any nurse does; it is only the place and population served that differ.

An example of how a professional relationship with custody staff is established, is in accounting, not just for controlled substances, but for all the sharp instruments as well. This is usually done at the beginning and end of every shift. This means all of the instruments, including those in the dental clinic, those kept in the inpatient and outpatient medical areas, and the lab as well plus every needle on site…it can be an arduous task. This degree of accountability is necessary because sharps can be used as weapons, to do tattooing and to shoot drugs, all dangerous and prohibited activities in a correctional facility. Nurses count sharps because it is necessary for security, not as part of health care delivery. A missing sharp means that the whole facility will be locked down and searched until the item is found. I have experienced an entire facility being locked facility down, for hours on end, because a single insulin syringe could not be accounted for. No other work, even delivery of health care takes place, until the “sharp” is accounted for. Sometimes nurses balk at the requirement for counting or act as though it isn’t as important as patient care. However, failure to account for sharps is not only dangerous, but it undermines the professional relationship with custody staff.

The ANA standards for professional practice are also important because they help to define and protect the role of nurses in the correctional setting. We provide health care in a setting where custody staff, facility commanders and correctional administrators have little or no knowledge of the standards for nursing care, let alone much appreciation for the limits of nursing practice in state law, unlike traditional health care settings. A nurse cannot rely on the correctional facility to have practices and procedures that are compliant with state law or professional practice standards. They may be the only nurse for a small facility and have no other health care professional to provide advice, other than a part time visiting physician. Even in large correctional facilities with many nurses, including nurses in management, practice creep can occur for an individual nurse whose primary interaction during a shift is with correctional officers and inmates who don’t know or appreciate the nurse’s scope of practice. Individual nurses must therefore establish these boundaries on their own, or risk violation of the law and the potential for action on their license.

There are many examples where nurses are asked to perform work that is outside the scope of practice or not consistent with professional standards. A nurse may be asked to approve use of pepper spray or endorse the use of a restraint chair and hood; decisions which are not in the interest of the patient or their health care. For example, another friend of mine, Lynda Bronson, was threatened with insubordination for refusing a direct order from the Warden to forcibly medicate an inmate who was in segregation and screaming obscenities at the officers.

The Warden threatened Lynda three times with insubordination and yet she stood her ground and explained that she did not have a medical order that would allow her to forcibly medicate the inmate. These are tough situations to be in and correctional nurses must be experts in communication, collaboration, and problem solving, with Wardens as well as correctional officers. These skills are necessary to arrive at compromises that solve problems, like screaming obscenities and gravely disordered behavior, while keeping the patient and staff safe.

Well done, this is experienced as practice autonomy, one of the most preferred and distinguishing characteristics of correctional nursing. Nurses who are clear about the standards and boundaries of their practice in correctional settings earn the respect of custody staff and are able to negotiate better outcomes for their patients.

To sum up, correctional nurses provide health care from within the justice system, to a disparate population of prisoners with great disease burden. These features; the location and population served, along with the nurse’s independent negotiation for care, define and characterize correctional nursing.

They say that once a nurse has resolved these cultural challenges, he or she will stay in the Land of Correctional Oz forever. As Tonia Faust, the nurse from the Louisiana State Penitentiary said in The American Nurse “There is a purpose for me here”. Those that don’t survive the transition, leave, usually within the first year.

Do the challenges portrayed over the last three weeks fit the experience you had transitioning into the field of correctional nursing? Are there aspects of your practice in correctional nursing that are different from other nursing fields that have not been highlighted in this series? Please share your thoughts about these questions by responding in the comments section of this post.

If you would like to read more about caring and professional practice in correctional nursing see Chapter 2 on the ethical principles of correctional nursing and chapter that discusses the elements of professional correctional nursing practice in our book, Essentials of Correctional Nursing. 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.

Photo credit: Jaka Vinsek, Cinematographer The American Nurse

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