What Is a Correctional Nurse? Delivering Healthcare Behind Bars

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The U.S. correctional system houses almost 2 million people in approximately 1,600 state and federal prisons, 2,850 local jails, 1,500 juvenile correctional facilities, 190 immigration detention facilities, and 80 Indian country jails, as well as in civil commitment centers, military prisons, U.S. territory prisons, and psychiatric hospitals, according to official data gathered by the Prison Policy Initiative. Moreover, about 10% of people incarcerated in the United States are ages 55 and older. Incarcerated people represent a unique and complex population with wide-spanning medical needs, including requiring treatment for drug withdrawal, mental health disorders, self-destructive behavior, and infectious diseases.

Registered nurses who want to help address the healthcare needs of potentially vulnerable or high-risk populations may be drawn to the field of correctional nursing. Completing a program such as Maryville University’s online Bachelor of Science in Nursing (RN to BSN) can prepare them with the knowledge and skills they need to pursue jobs in this area of nursing.

A correctional nurse works on a tablet computer in a prison medical room.

Correctional Nurse Job Description

Among the many types of nurses, correctional nurses occupy a unique role in the healthcare field. Correctional nurses are RNs who provide care to incarcerated people in various public and private correctional facilities, including juvenile detention centers, jails, prisons, and state and federal holding facilities. The job duties associated with this profession are often similar to those of nurses who work in hospitals and other care facilities, with the primary difference being that correctional nurses provide care to people who have been charged with or sentenced for a crime.

Correctional nurses play a vital role in maintaining the physical and mental health of incarcerated individuals. They provide care for a wide spectrum of medical and mental health conditions, spanning the common cold to autoimmune disorders. In some instances, correctional nurses may need to provide emergency care.

Many incarcerated people have lacked consistent access to medical care prior to their detention, and they often arrive at correctional facilities with undiagnosed conditions. For example, detained adults are more likely to experience chronic conditions — including cancer, diabetes, heart-related problems, and infectious diseases such as tuberculosis and hepatitis C — than the general population, according to a report from the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) on the medical problems of people incarcerated in state and federal facilities.

Additionally, incarcerated people with prior mental health issues, such as bipolar disorder or schizophrenia, may experience worsened symptoms while detained in this type of environment. They may also need specialized aid if they experience new trauma.

Correctional Nurse Responsibilities

Common tasks and responsibilities of a correctional facility nurse include:

  • Handling case management
  • Performing physical assessments of newly detained individuals and those who have recently been transferred from another facility
  • Administering daily medications to ensure compliance
  • Applying bandages and surgical dressings
  • Providing first aid and emergency care
  • Reporting and logging detainees’ reactions to medications
  • Reporting and logging changes in detainees’ emotional and/or physical condition
  • Assisting physicians with medical treatments
  • Obtaining blood samples, stool samples, and other specimens for diagnostic testing

Correctional Nurse Work Settings

Correctional facilities operate 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Consequently, nurses working in a corrections environment may be asked to work night, weekend, and holiday shifts. Additionally, they are often subject to additional workplace rules and security procedures. For example, correctional nurses may be prohibited from bringing metal cutlery to work and are often not allowed to have their cellphones with them during their shifts. In some states, nurses may need to pass a criminal background check to apply for the correctional nurse position.

How to Become a Correctional Nurse

Correctional nurses address the everyday healthcare needs of incarcerated individuals, as well as the increasingly complex physical and mental health needs of a vulnerable and aging prison population.

Registered nurse preparation is required for those who wish to become correctional nurses. Registered nurses usually follow one of three educational paths: earning a bachelor’s degree in nursing, an associate degree in nursing, or a diploma from an approved nursing program. A Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) is a foundational degree that prepares students for a nursing career and paves the way for them to move on to earning a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) and gaining senior and managerial positions.

While a BSN isn’t required for someone to become a registered nurse, when it comes to a diploma — or associate-level RN versus an RN with a BSN — the bachelor’s degree offers more training and a solid background in nursing theory, psychology, and biology. Nurses must also pass the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX-RN) to obtain licensure in their states.

Correctional nursing positions may be entry level, in which case orientation and assignment to a preceptor are required in most correctional facilities. For nurses seeking to enhance their credentials and job prospects, the National Commission on Correctional Healthcare (NCCHC) offers the certified correctional health professional (CCHP-RN) certification. The eligibility requirements for the CCHP-RN include:

  • A current, active RN license
  • The equivalent of two years of full-time practice as a registered nurse
  • Completion of 2,000 hours of practice in a correctional setting within the past three years
  • Completion of 54 hours of continuing education in nursing, with 18 hours specific to correctional healthcare within the past three years

Along with CCHP certification, experience in emergency nursing or medical-surgical nursing and an interest in corrections work is an advantage to landing a job in the field.

Correctional Nurse Salary and Job Outlook

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) classifies correctional nurses under the blanket category of registered nurses. It projects the employment of RNs to grow by 9% between 2020 and 2030, which is 1% faster than the average projected growth for all occupations. This organic growth, coupled with the wave of retiring baby boomer nurses and the need to replace nurses who change career paths, has led the BLS to project approximately 194,500 job openings for RNs per year through 2030.

In 2021, the median annual salary for RNs was $77,600, according to the BLS. However, salaries can vary widely based on several factors, such as a candidate’s experience level and the position’s location.

Correctional Nursing Skills

Registered nurses looking to advance their careers as correctional nurses will be well-served by further developing several core skills and competencies.

  • Attention to detail: Correctional nurses must identify and assess changes in patients’ health status. Strict attention to detail helps them identify subtle changes in detainees’ medical conditions.
  • Communication: Correctional nurses must be comfortable communicating with patients of various ages and backgrounds. Fine-tuned communication skills help correctional nurses explain instructions, such as how to care for an injury, and relay patients’ medical needs to corrections and medical staff. The skills are also important in effectively communicating with the facility’s guards and staff, especially during emergency situations.
  • Compassion: Nurses working in jails, prisons, and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention centers must be empathetic and caring. Compassion helps patients feel more comfortable discussing their ailments.
  • Critical thinking: The type of care that correctional nurses provide can change from day to day. When medical emergencies happen, critical thinking skills help nurses identify patients’ medical conditions and determine next steps.
  • Emotional stability: Incarcerated people face a variety of stressors, such as separation from their loved ones, guilt about an offense, and a lack of emotional support. Consequently, emotional resilience is needed to administer care in a corrections environment.

Take a Unique Role in Healthcare by Becoming a Correctional Nurse

Correctional nurses practice at the intersection of healthcare and the criminal justice system. RNs interested in pursuing careers as correctional nurses must begin by developing the knowledge and skills they’ll need to be successful. An online degree such as Maryville’s online Bachelor of Science in Nursing (RN to BSN) can help prepare them with the expertise needed to pursue jobs in this field.

Are you ready to take the first brave step toward a career as a correctional nurse? Discover how Maryville’s online Bachelor of Science in Nursing can help prepare you for the job you want.

Recommended Reading

Comparing Nursing Degree Certificate: Practical Nurse vs. RN

How Nurses Impact Quality of Care

The Top 8 Nonclinical Skills Needed to Be an Excellent Nurse


California Department of Human Resources, Registered Nurse, Correctional Facility

National Commission on Correctional Health Care, CCHP-RN Certification

Prison Policy Initiative, “Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie 2022

Prison Policy Initiative, “Since You Asked: How Many People Aged 55 or Older Are in Prison, by State?”

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Outlook Handbook, Registered Nurses

U.S. Department of Justice Bureau of Justice Statistics, Medical Problems of Prisoners