Prisoners and Pandemics: Tips for Nurses Working Behind Bars

If anything good can be said to have come of the COVID-19 outbreak, it is that, at last, our first responders, doctors, and, especially, our nurses are finally being recognized as the true superheroes of the world. But there’s one population of nurses that is too frequently overlooked, and that’s the prison nurse.

Compassion and steely strength are a part of a nurse’s job description. But a prison nurse must call on these resources in quantities many of us simply cannot fathom. 

Every day, they are called on to care for society’s forgotten and vulnerable, for those our society least values. Those for whom it may not always be easy to find compassion or caring. 

Prison nurses often find themselves working in the most inhospitable conditions. But now prison nurses are tasked with doing it in the face of a pandemic. They’re facing challenges for which there is simply no playbook.

This article provides strategies prison nurses can use to protect themselves and their patients, both during the pandemic and in the new “abnormal” to come.

Focus on Immunity

It won’t come as news to a nurse that a prison environment is a breeding ground for infectious diseases. That was true long before the pandemic and it will remain true long after. 

Crowded and sometimes unsanitary conditions provide the perfect environment for viruses and bacteria to emerge and proliferate. These pathogens can spread like wildfire throughout the population.

The pandemic has only amplified that risk. There simply is no such thing as social distancing in a prison environment. 

The threat of COVID has made it all the more urgent that prisoners, and those caring for them, have the resources needed to resist the virus, should they be exposed, the reserves to fight should they become infected. 

Bolstering the immunity of the prisoners is about more than caring for the prisoners. It’s also about caring for the carers. Because when an infection sweeps through the inmate population, it’s not likely that the illness is going to distinguish between prisoner and nurse. The frontline carers are just as vulnerable as the prisoners when illness breaks out among the inmates. 

Whether your facility is currently facing a coronavirus outbreak or not, it’s important for nurses and prisoners alike to prepare their immune systems as though the virus had already come. 

Getting consistent, restorative, and sufficient sleep is by far the best way to bolster your immune system. While this may be possible for nurses when they’re off-duty, unfortunately, for prisoners, that’s not generally an option. 

Prison isn’t exactly conducive to restful sleep. That’s why it is important to support prisoners’ immune systems in other ways, such as ensuring they are getting adequate nutrition and avoiding substances that could compromise them, such as alcohol, which can inhibit the body’s ability to fight infection and other illnesses.

Keeping it Clean

Protecting nurses and inmates isn’t just about creating a sanitary environment, promoting meticulous hygiene, or working to build up prisoners’ and caregivers’ immune systems. It’s also about helping inmates fight the addictions that may well have helped put them into the system in the first place. As an example, in 2015 alone, there were more than one million DUI arrests in the US and over 10,000 fatalities.

The simple fact is that many inmates are already battling addiction when they become incarcerated. And it’s not just illicit and illegal drugs. Alcohol, in fact, is one of the most commonly abused substances. It’s also among the deadliest.

Protecting inmates’ health will often mean ensuring they receive the treatment and support they need to fight their addictions. This includes helping the inmate recognize the complex origins of their addiction, such as the genetic factors, that often make it impossible for them to get clean without consistent and intensive help.

Don’t Forget the Women

When we think of the prison population, we usually think of men. But there is a substantial and growing population of female inmates. 

Caring for female prisoners, especially in the face of a pandemic, requires special care. In addition to the particular needs that are common to all inmates, female prisoners also require quality obstetric and gynecological care.

In addition to this, however, female inmates also face a significantly greater risk of sexual assault. This requires nurses to be acutely aware of the unique risks female inmates face, and the particular provisions that must be made to protect them. 

Image Source: Pixabay

In a pandemic environment, this threat isn’t just sexual. It can also threaten the inmates’ survival. While there’s no evidence that COVID can be transmitted through semen or vaginal fluids, it is assuredly transmitted through respiratory secretions. And that means that if sexual contact has occurred, consensual or not, all parties are at risk of contracting the virus. 

Just one event of unsafe contact can ignite a spark that sets the pathogen blazing through the prison. And that doesn’t just put the inmates at risk. It also increases the chances that you, the rest of the nursing staff and caregivers, and your family and community outside of prison walls may be exposed.

The challenge, however, is that in the face of the COVID pandemic, the nursing shortage in prisons is greater than ever. It can feel impossible to provide the kind of focused attention female inmates need when there simply aren’t enough nurses to go around. 

The Takeaway

Being a nurse isn’t easy. But being a correctional nurse is even harder. When you add to those challenges the unprecedented burden of a pandemic, it can feel overwhelming. There are things you can do, as a prison nurse, to protect yourself and your patients. This includes bolstering the immune system through quality sleep and good nutrition. It also includes ensuring prisoners receive the addiction treatment they need to be sober and healthy. It also means understanding and addressing the particular needs of female inmates, even amid an intensifying staffing shortage. Ultimately, as a prison nurse, caring for your patients means caring for yourself and your colleagues. In the close, contained environment of the prison, the health of one is the health of all.

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Sam Bowman writes about people, tech, wellness and how they merge. He enjoys getting to utilize the internet for community without actually having to leave his house. In his spare time he likes running, reading, and combining the two in a run to his local bookstore.

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