Skip to main content

Providing Care and Compassion to Patients Behind Bars: An Interview with a Correctional Nurse

May 5, 2021

By Rachel Friederich Communications Office
Portrait of Patricia Paterson

Washington Corrections Center Registered Nurse Patricia Paterson (Submitted by Nancy Fernalius, Clinical Nurse Specialist)

See Photo Gallery

May is International Nurses Month. The American Nursing Association, in conjunction with the World Health Organization, expanded the widely-recognized National Nurses Week (observed during the second full week in May) to the entire month. It’s a chance to honor the relentless work and compassion of nurses and create awareness of their contributions.

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, nurses have been at the forefront, working double shifts, administering vaccinations, distributing medication and tending to and providing comfort for sick patients. And correctional nurses are no exception.

As of April 1, 2021, The Washington State Department of Corrections employed 464 correctional nurses (approximately 5.2% of total employees). Nationally, in 2020, there were more than 3.2 million people working as registered nurses and 218,000 working as nurse practitioners in the United States, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Besides the licenses, education and other credentials nurses in hospitals and medical offices require, correctional nurses go through an additional four weeks of Correctional Worker Core training over topics related to critical incident survival and communicating professionally with the incarcerated population. Nurses who work in correctional settings often treat patients with medical conditions not commonly seen in community healthcare facilities for the public.

To celebrate International Nurses Month, DOC Communications recently interviewed a correctional nurse about how her work makes a difference in the lives of incarcerated individuals.

Patricia Paterson

Current Worksite: Washington Corrections Center
Number of years as a correctional nurse: 10 years
Number of years as a nurse (if different): 18 years

What got you interested in becoming a correctional nurse?

I was an emergency room/operating room sexual assault nurse examiner at a local hospital. During that time, I read research that indicated victims of sexual assault and incarcerated individuals had many common risk factors. I then became interested in corrections nursing.

What is unique or different about being a correctional nurse compared to working in other areas of nursing?

You must be a generalist. We see everything in corrections; it’s like an ER, urgent care, family practice all in one. You see everything, even things you never heard of before. There is always something new and interesting.

Are there any public misconceptions about nurses? What is something about being a nurse that you don’t think many people know or understand?

There are two. I often read articles that quote families of incarcerated individuals and they seem to believe we don’t care. I work with some of the most dedicated, professional, intelligent nurses around. We take care of our patients with compassion and knowledge.

The other misconception is that nurses who can’t work anywhere else come to corrections. This is not the case. We have nurses with many backgrounds that bring a wealth of experience and knowledge.

Nurses are doing extraordinary things during this pandemic to slow the spread of COVID-19 and keep us all healthy. Thank you! In the past year, can you remember a time that really made you say ‘Wow! I made a difference?’

I can’t say I felt that about myself, but I certainly feel that about the nurses I work with. They have worked through this pandemic and put in thousands of hours of overtime to provide care cell to cell when patients couldn’t come to the infirmary. We did not have any of our population from WCC hospitalized for COVID. Our nurses worked tirelessly to provide excellent care and I admire them for their dedication. The nursing staff at WCC made a difference in the lives of the incarcerated individuals and their families.

What do you enjoy most about working as a correctional nurse?

I enjoy the opportunity to work for change in how we deliver care to our patients, how we provide care 24/7 no matter what is happening. Pandemic. Snowstorm, Lockdowns. It doesn’t affect how our nursing staff provides the best possible care to all the men and women in our corrections system. I am proud to be a nurse in DOC!