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Correctional Nurses Make a Difference

May 21, 2020

By Rachel Noll

DOC Communications

Two nurses in masks in an office in foreground, office walls in background with calendar on wall

Mandy Venable and Karen O’Brien, Registered Nurses at WCC take a quick break to pose for a photo. (DOC Communications)

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Each year from May 6-12, the nation recognizes nurses for their contributions to society. This year, to celebrate the 200th anniversary of Florence Nightingale's birth, the World Health Organization (WHO) proclaimed 2020 the International Year of the Nurse and Midwife and the American Nurses Association expanded Nurses’ Week to the entire month of May. Globally, nurses are a primary source of care, and according to the WHO, there is a universal need for 9 million more nurses and midwives.

About Correctional Nursing

For the over 16,000 individuals incarcerated at Washington State Department of Corrections (DOC) facilities, approximately 400 nurses provide the majority of medical care needed. These nurses provide health care services in much the same way a nurse at a major hospital or medical clinic would, but under different circumstances and often with additional challenges.

Nurses who work for Corrections are required to have the same licensure and credentials that any other clinic or medical facility would require. Once hired, in addition to a nursing degree, state nursing license credentials and basic experience in medical-surgical experience, nurses must go through approximately four weeks of Correctional Worker Core (CORE) training.

At CORE, nurses receive Corrections-specific training, providing an overview of multiple aspects of Corrections, including: communicating professionally with incarcerated individuals, critical incident survival and practical law for Corrections.

Nurses then begin work at their assigned facility, receiving additional training on site to ensure they are familiar with the population, their job duties and the critical importance of safety in this unique nursing environment.

Correctional Nurses Face Challenges

These nurses working in Corrections face additional safety and security challenges that they may not face elsewhere; however, their dedication to their work and their passion for caring for others is often why they choose to work in Corrections.

Most hospitals and urgent care centers have response teams and practitioners on site in addition to technicians that provide IV and lab support. In Corrections, when a declared medical emergency occurs at a prison, correctional nurses must respond with custody officers, as there are a variety of safety and security concerns that the nurses may face.

The nurse (or nurses) who respond to the emergency are responsible for initiating any life-saving measures, stabilizing patients for safe transfer back to the medical area, and coordinating with off-site practitioners. In the absence of medical specialty teams, correctional nurses are also responsible for starting IVs and obtaining labs, in addition to their other duties. At the same time, they must take into consideration that needles, and certain other equipment, must stay out of reach of the incarcerated population.

COVID-19 has brought additional challenges to nurses in Corrections. The necessary precautions against COVID-19 have added additional steps and responsibilities, which in turn have caused an increased workload for nurses, not just in Corrections, but everywhere.

Despite the challenges correctional nurses face, they consistently make the choice to continue working in prisons, because they are passionate about bringing quality health care to incarcerated individuals. DOC’s correctional nurses consistently provide guidance for best practices, care for patients and reassurance to those around them.

DOC’s Nursing Staff

The nurses at DOC are dedicated to their jobs and their patients. They care for patients regardless of their criminal history or background, with every effort to make a positive difference.

“Our nursing staff approach their work with efficiency, professionalism and integrity, in a way that honors our commitment to operate a safe and humane corrections system and partner with others to transform lives for a better Washington,” said Stephen Sinclair, Secretary of the Washington State Department of Corrections.

Before working for Corrections, Clinical Nurse Specialist Nancy Fernelius worked in a hospital and as a Public Health Nurse (PHN) in Oregon. Her work as a PHN brought her in contact with patients at a county jail, sparking her interest in correctional nursing.

“For many of us, nursing is a ‘calling’, a drive to provide compassionate care to an underserved population,” Fernelius said. “Working in corrections is more than providing care in the moment. We provide ongoing education and care for our patients that will follow them as they prepare for release back into our communities.”

Patricia Paterson, Nursing Supervisor at Washington Corrections Center (WCC), spent most of her career in the Emergency Department. After becoming a sexual assault nurse examiner, she studied the risk factors for victims of sexual assault and interpersonal violence. Upon doing so, she began to notice common risk factors existed between victims and incarcerated individuals. This led her to understand that a portion of the population is consistently underserved and often retain lifelong health issues.

“I applied at Stafford Creek Corrections Center as a nursing supervisor with the goal of helping staff improve the lives of the men they take care of,” Paterson said. “I transferred to Shelton the following year to provide nursing leadership for the staff at WCC.

“I find this position fulfilling as a nurse and as a supervisor,” she said. “We can see the positive changes in the people we have provided care for. We are able to redirect bad behavior and mirror positive behaviors. We are able to interact with our patients from weeks to years and develop therapeutic relationships that help our patients' re-entry through education and positive interactions.”