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What Is a Correctional Nurse? Nursing Behind Bars

The U.S. correctional system houses more than 2 million pretrial and sentenced inmates across more than 1,900 state and federal prisons, 200 Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention facilities, and 3,100 jails, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. These inmates represent a unique population with wide-spanning medical needs, including 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’ll need to pursue jobs in this area of nursing.

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

What Is a Correctional Nurse?

Correctional nurses are RNs who provide care to inmates 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 Nurse Job Description

Correctional nurses treat a wide spectrum of medical conditions, spanning from the common cold to autoimmune disorders. In some instances, correctional nurses may need to provide emergency care. Although a correctional nurse’s job duties may vary based on the inmate population they work with, common tasks and responsibilities include:

  • Performing physical assessments of newly detained inmates and inmates 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

Incarcerated people have often lacked consistent access to medical care prior to their detention, and they often arrive at correctional facilities with undiagnosed conditions. For example, a report from the Bureau of Justice Statistics on the medical problems of state and federal prisoners found that 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.

Additionally, inmates 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.

Work Settings for a Correctional Nurse

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. 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, aspiring correctional nurses may need to pass a criminal background check as part of the application process.

Correctional Nurse Salary and Job Growth Projections

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) classifies correctional nurses under the blanket category of registered nurses. It projects the overall employment of RNs to grow by 7% between 2019 and 2029, which is much faster than the average projection for all occupations (4%). This strong 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 175,900 new job openings for RNs per year through 2029.

As of May 2019, the median annual salary for RNs was $73,300, 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.

Fundamental Skills for a Correctional Nurse

Registered nurses looking to advance their careers as correctional nurses will be well served by further developing several core skills and competencies, including attention to detail, communication, compassion, critical thinking, and emotional stability.

  • Attention to Detail: Correctional nurses must identify and assess changes in inmates’ 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 inmates’ 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 ICE detention centers must be empathetic and caring. Compassion helps patients feel comfortable discussing their ailments.
  • Critical Thinking: The type of care that corrections nurses provide can change from day to day. When medical emergencies happen, critical-thinking skills help nurses identify inmates’ medical conditions and determine next steps.
  • Emotional Stability: Inmates may face a variety of stressors, such as being away from their loved ones, experiencing guilt about an offense, and feeling like they lack emotional support. Consequently, emotional resilience is needed to administer care in a corrections environment.

Start Your Path Toward a Career as a Correctional Nurse

RNs interested in pursuing careers as correctional nurses must start by developing the knowledge and skills they’ll need to be successful. Completing a relevant online degree, such as Maryville’s online Bachelor of Science in Nursing (RN to BSN), can 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

The Top 8 Nonclinical Skills Needed to Be an Excellent Nurse

LVN vs. BSN: Explore Key Differences in These Nursing Roles

Comparing Nursing Degree Certificate: Practical Nurse vs. RN


APNA, Correctional Health Nursing

Daily Nurse, Correctional Facility Nurse

General Healthcare Resources, 

GHR Job Description, Corrections Nurse

Premier Medical Staffing Services, “A Day in the Life of a Correctional Nurse”

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Registered Nurses

U.S. Department of Justice Bureau of Justice Statistics,

Medical Problems of Prisoners

U.S. Department of Justice Bureau of Justice Statistics, Total Correctional Population