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Career Spotlight: Correctional Health Nurse

By Stacey Gawronski On Aug 30, 2022
Lonely patient in hospital corridor

According to the latest data from the United States Department of Justice (DOJ), there were more than 1.2 million people incarcerated in state and federal prisons at the end of 2020. There’s a high demand for healthcare providers to care for this underserved population.

Nurses are known not only for their training and expertise, but also for their compassion. If you have the ability to see beyond a patient’s criminal past and believe everyone should have access to healthcare, a career as a prison nurse may be right for you.

Prison Nurse Job Duties

County, state, and federal prisons employ certified nursing assistants (CNAs), licensed practical nurses (LPNs), and registered nurses (RNs) to provide medical care for inmates. Correctional health nurses serve many different functions.

The job responsibilities of a prison nurse include:

  • Respond to medical emergencies
  • Distribute medications
  • Provide first aid, including cleaning and dressing wounds
  • Record vitals, administer tests, and collect blood samples
  • Perform an initial medical exam on a newly incarcerated individuals
  • Assist in the treatment of infectious diseases and chronic conditions
  • Review inmates’ medical records and coordinate care without other healthcare providers
  • Support the detox process for inmates experiencing a substance use disorder
  • Provide education and counseling to inmates and staff regarding health concerns and conditions

Understanding the Medical Needs of the Correctional System Population

Patients in the correctional system face serious health challenges. Many entering the jail system have not had any previous access to healthcare and may arrive with undiagnosed conditions.

One DOJ report found that 40 percent of incarcerated adults surveyed had a chronic medical condition. Just over 20 percent of those in prison had tuberculosis, hepatitis B or C, or other sexually transmitted diseases. And approximately one in four jail inmates showed signs of serious mental illness.

The current pandemic presents a new set of challenges for incarcerated adults and the healthcare providers who treat them. As of January 2022, more than half a million people incarcerated in prisons across the country have tested positive for COVID-19, according to the Covid Prison Project.

Things to Consider About Working as a Correctional Nurse

The data is clear. Adults housed in jails and prisons have serious medical needs. If you are up for the challenge, you can enjoy some of the many benefits of this unique career choice. Here are some things to consider if you are contemplating working in a correctional facility.

Higher Pay Is Possible

While salaries vary from position to position, nurses working in jails and prisons often earn higher than average pay compared to nurses working in more traditional healthcare settings. Facilities offer higher pay in an effort to attract talented, dedicated nurses and physicians. Salary.com reports the average annual salary for a jail nurse in the United States at the end of 2021 fell between $72,110 and $90,474.

Safety Is Emphasized

When you think about working in a prison, you may understandably have concerns about your safety. But you should know the safety of nurses, law enforcement, and other civilians is a top priority in correctional facilities. Typically, an officer is present during every exam and systems are in place to call for assistance in an emergency. Generally, the inmates understand nurses are there to help them and are respectful and cooperative.

Jobs Are Widely Available

Because the role of a correctional health nurse is widely misunderstood, many healthcare providers are reluctant to consider it. That means there are a wealth of opportunities available to nurses with a passion for assisting underserved incarcerated individuals. And many of these jobs are located in desirable locations in competitive job markets including California, Georgia, and Texas.

You Can Make a Difference

Correctional health nurses share a common belief that everyone deserves access to high-quality medical care. As a prison nurse, you may be the first provider in the patient’s life to teach them everyday medical skills like proper nutrition and exercise, or how to manage chronic disease. You can influence how they feel about health and medical care and provide support and relief for symptoms and conditions that have gone untreated for months or years.

Self-Care Is Critical

Even if you feel safe and prepared for your role as a correctional health nurse, working with incarcerated individuals can take a toll on your mental and emotional health. It’s vital to slow down and assess your stress level on a regular basis. It’s always a good idea to practice self-care and consider seeing a mental health professional if you need additional support.

The medical field is full of unique and rewarding job opportunities. Correctional health nurses make a difference for individuals who may not trust the healthcare system or who have never had access to medical care prior to being incarcerated.

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