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Detention Centers Feeling Impact of Nursing Shortage

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Key Takeaways

  • Correctional nursing is a highly specialized field of nursing that involves caring for the medical needs of detainees and inmates.
  • This nursing practice specialty poses a challenge for any nurse who has worked only in a traditional setting prior to employment in corrections.
  • Centers across the country are pleading for nursing staff to fill vacant positions in order to care for inmates, especially those in rural areas.

Burleigh Morton County Detention Center in North Dakota is down from 3 correctional nurses to just 1. The staff nurse is responsible for inmate prescriptions, completing daily health assessments, and providing emergency care for the center’’s 130 inmates. She gets help from others, but it’s a strain on the department.1

“The population that comes in here are people that deal with substance abuse or mental illness and the officers aren’t trained, nor is it their job…to be medical assistance in these types of situations,” said correctional nurse for Burleigh Morton County Detention Center Amanda Thompson.1

Correctional nursing, at its core, is a highly specialized field of nursing that involves providing adequate care for the medical needs of detainees and inmates without bias or judgement. These nursing professionals treat a wide array of medical problems each and every day, from acute illnesses to medical emergencies.2 

Correctional nursing also requires a level of awareness of certain policies and procedures that pertain to their own safety. At times, prisons and correctional facilities can be very dangerous places, and injuries are not at all uncommon. Correctional nurses must be prepared to handle injuries such as stabbings and broken bones. In some instances, such as when a correctional facility healthcare ward is unable to attend to an emergency, a correctional nurse might also be required to accompany patients to outside medical facilities for additional treatment.2

Burleigh County Sheriff Kelly Leben says inmates are usually transported to the hospital if a nurse is not available so that they can receive proper medical care. “Especially the nursing side of it, it’s kind of an island. We’re not like a hospital where surgery can draw from neonatal, or intensive care can draw from the emergency room,” said Leben.1

Ms. Thompson shed some light on the career path, which is often stigmatized due to America’s lack of knowledge of the profession. She stated, “It’s not what most people think it is. It’s not scary. It’s a very rewarding job and it’s a fun environment with a lot of variety.”1 

Identifying Correctional Nurses During a Nursing Shortage 

The country is currently facing the threat of a nursing shortage; a report published by Goodcall found that in order to meet the demand of nurses across the country, the U.S. needs 1.2 million more nurses by 2030.3 If 1000+ patient hospitals are facing shortages, just imagine how detention centers feel, especially those in rural areas of the country.  

A correctional institution in Osborn, Connecticut, has been struggling with finding nursing staff for over a year. Minimum staffing levels dictate that 3 nurses be scheduled for the overnight shift — from 11 p.m. until 7 a.m. — but personnel scarcity has forced the Department of Correction, when necessary, to schedule 2 health care professionals instead. This leaves just 2 people responsible for the medical care of the 1048 inmates incarcerated there.4

Though the overnight shift stretches through the wee hours of the morning, there’s a significant period where inmates are awake, said Michelle Cyr, a licensed practical nurse at Osborn who normally works the 3 to 11 p.m. shift. Overnight nurses are required to administer care for Osborn’s diabetic inmates every morning, a critical duty that is harder to complete if there’s any sort of unrest in the prison – or if it’s short-staffed.4

The shortage of staff only intensified during the COVID-19 pandemic, because staff have to check inmates’ vitals, do nasal swabs to test for the virus, and deliver medication to the units.5

Scope of Practice Issues for Correctional Nurses

The pandemic has brought to light that many of today’s inmates are older, sicker, remain in prison longer, and come from backgrounds of high risk for poor health and little access to healthcare services or treatment.Correctional nursing poses a challenge for any nurse who has worked solely in a traditional setting prior to employment in corrections. A survey deployed among Montana correctional nurses found that correctional nurses:

  • feel stigmatized against other nursing specialties;
  • feel as though they have to work beyond their scope of practice boundaries;
  • refer patients to outside resources less often than other specialties;
  • find their process differs from other nursing specialties.5

Nursing Shortage Linked to Inmate Concern About Their Health

Nurses and staff aren’t the only ones worried about the shortage and availability of correctional nurses. Members of the incarcerated population are concerned about the lack of nurses in their centers, as evident by the Osborn population. In two separate letters written to Gov. Ned Lamont in May, Thomas Browdy, a 62-year-old man incarcerated at Osborn for a 3-year forgery sentence, said he was worried his underlying medical conditions would put him at risk of death should he contract the virus.4

“The governor’s office has consistently informed the public it is releasing older inmates, low-level offenders with underlying medical problems. In my case, that is not true,” Browdy wrote. “Connecticut’s health care system does not have the capacity to treat an outbreak of COVID-19 in prison, and Osborn’s medical services is not equipped to handle an outbreak of COVID-19 it is experiencing now.”4

Despite the decline of COVID-19 among detention centers, the vacancy of nursing staff still remains, and isn’t improving. Leaders in the industry must step up and call for more nurses across the country, specifically those to care for our nation’s inmates. 


  1. Craven E. Jail feels strain of nurse shortages. KFYR. Published July 13, 2021. Accessed July 20, 2021. 
  2. Correctional care nurse. Every Nurse. Accessed July 20, 2021. 
  3. Williams T. 1.2 million more nurses needed by 2030 to meet U.S. demand. GoodCall. Accessed July 20, 2021. 
  4. Lyons K. Osborn Correctional nursing shortage even worse amid pandemic, union says. The CT Mirror. Published June 15, 2020. Accessed July 20, 2021.  
  5. White AL. Larsson LS. Exploring scope of practice issues for correctional facility nurses in Montana.  J Correct Health Care. 2012;18(1):70-76.

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