Correctional Nursing and the Ethic of Social Justice

Have you ever been asked what you do as a nurse and found yourself launching into a discussion of sick call and medication passes? It is easy to get lost in the weeds on our professional journey. That’s why it can be refreshing to periodically return to the defining qualities of the nursing profession to see the big picture.

The definition of nursing as found in the ANA Scope and Standards of Practice is

  • The protection, promotion, and optimization of health and abilities
  • Prevention of illness and injury
  • Facilitation of healing
  • Alleviation of suffering

We do this through the diagnosis and treatment of human response and we advocate in the care of

  • Individuals
  • Families
  • Groups
  • Communities
  • Populations

As correctional nurses, we fulfill this definition in the criminal justice system. The location of nursing care delivery establishes our unique patient population, environment of care, and ethical dilemmas of practice.

It is invigorating to be reminded that nursing care goes beyond the post duties and task list for the shift. Certainly caring for patients in a one-on-one situation is the majority of many of our job descriptions. However, I was recently struck by the inclusion of communities and populations in the nursing definition. How do we advocate for care and alleviate the suffering of communities and populations as a correctional nurse?

What is Social Justice?

Social justice is a broad term used to describe equity in the distribution of resources and responsibilities among members of society. According to the Canadian Nurses Association social justice in health care involves “working to prevent negative effects of oppressive practices such as discrimination against individuals on the basis of gender, sexual orientation, age or any other social factor that might affect health and well-being. In correctional nursing, social justice would include reducing dehumanizing practices within the criminal justice system and extend toward improving the health and well-being of the homeless, impoverished, and under-educated communities from which our patients and their families enter into the criminal system.

Social Justice in the Criminal Justice System

You would think that a system with justice in its title would be just but there is a lot of social injustice in the criminal justice system. You don’t have to look very far to see oppression in the power structure of many correctional settings. The need to maintain discipline and provide for personal and public safety can lead to severe punishment and even brutality in the organizational culture in some settings. As correctional nurses, we may not ascribe to the incivility but are often required to view or even participate in the culture in order to delivery necessary health care. For example, have you ever had to witness a violent inmate take-down during an emergency man-down that resulted in the use of a severe restraint device? Did you feel there might have been a more humane way to deal with the safety issue but were afraid to speak up or felt you had no voice in the matter? How might a nursing response to restraint practices across the criminal justice system embody advocacy for the alleviation of suffering among our patient community and population?

But This isn’t a Patient Health Care Situation

As nurses in the criminal justice system we can easily get tunnel-vision about our role within the system. Certainly we are helped in this narrow focus by those criminal justice professionals who clearly see nursing as attending to the direct health needs of specific patients. Yet, our definition of nursing practice speaks otherwise. Our patients are the entire community of inmates within our facility and our role, among other things, is to promote their health, prevent their injury, and alleviate their suffering. Correctional nursing, then, is more than serial one-on-one patient care situations.

We Are All in This Together

Correctional nurses, as a group, can be a significant force in the criminal justice system. Our definition and Code of Ethics calls us to consider the human dignity of our patient population and the significant suffering that our patient community bears up under. Working together we have an opportunity to bring about social justice in an institution, a correctional system, and the entire criminal justice system.

 

One thought on “Correctional Nursing and the Ethic of Social Justice

  1. Pingback: What Can One Person Do? Ask Lillian Wald and Dorthea Dix | Essentials of Correctional Nursing

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