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MAR 24/2017

The Reality of Working as a Mental Health Nurse in a Prison

Author Template - Nurse Dean

For nurses, no two days are ever the same. Certain unpredictabilities surround the profession, making each day unique. It is this variable nature that often proves so appealing and rewarding for many who choose to enter the field. Prison nursing is no exception.

Prison nursing brings with it a heightened sense of uncertainty. Due to the vulnerability of the patients in need of care, often as a result of mental health, some cases may offer very different challenges to those with which many nurses are familiar.

Of course, prison nursing is a career path littered with myths and stereotypes, many of which cast a negative light on the profession. So what is working as a prison nurse actually like? What does a typical day entail? And do you need to be a special kind of nurse to work in a prison?

To separate fact from fiction, we spoke to Dean, a prison mental health nurse and valued member of the Medacs Healthcare family, who delivered an insight into the role and reveals what it is really like to work as a nurse in a prison.

What first attracted you to a career in prison nursing, and specifically mental health?

“I worked as a care assistant for several years before going to university to complete my nursing degree. The preconception is that it can be daunting and frightening to work in a prison, but a role came up and my friend advised me to apply. I was offered the prison nursing job and I stayed in that role for a number of years.

“I quickly realised that many prisoners have issues with their mental health and substance misuse. If we see prison as a place of reform and rehabilitation, it is very important that the mental health needs of prisoners are addressed with a view to returning them safely into society. It is a challenge to work with some of the most marginalised - and often stigmatised - people. It's an opportunity for me to make a real difference.”

Working as a prison nurse - nurse bandaging a prisoner's hand

Can you describe a typical day as a prison nurse?

“On a typical day, I carry out mental health and risk assessments. I'm often called on to write up care plans and discuss treatment options with patients, as well as administer medication, write reports, and arrange discharges and follow up. 

"Occasionally, I visit clinics with a psychiatrist and refer patients to other healthcare professionals. I'm also required to attend emergency codes and listen to inmates who may have never opened up to anyone about their childhoods."

What do you think are the key benefits of working as a mental health nurse in prison?

“I enjoy the challenges of a job where no two days are ever the same. There is a real sense of camaraderie among the healthcare staff and prison officers. We work closely to ensure that prisoners with mental health problems are properly cared for and supported."

What do you wish you had known before becoming a prison nurse? 

“I wish I'd have known how much of an emotional rollercoaster each day can be. You can go from crying tears of sadness to tears of laughter in just a matter of minutes. It is the most rewarding feeling when a prisoner gains a real insight into their condition, or you hear that a young person, whose life had been a revolving door of untreated mental health issues and convictions, is now doing well. I would most certainly recommend it.”

Working as a prison nurse - Nursing duties

What have you learned from your time as a prison nurse?

"Through working closely with my RGN colleagues and paramedics, I've gained experience in handling emergency situations.

"I've also learned to accept patients as individuals in a non-judgemental manner. With kind and caring treatment, there is an element of good in almost everyone. And winning the trust of these often disadvantaged patients brings its rewards.

What would you tell other nurses who are interested in pursuing a career in prison nursing?

“There are some days when you'll think to yourself 'I’m never going back to work in a prison’. But, don't worry, there are so many more days when you'll think ‘I couldn’t work anywhere else’.

Many people believe that you have to be a special kind of nurse to become a prison nurse, but I'd tell other nurses to try it out. You may find that you are more special than you think!”.

How have you found working as an agency nurse?

“I have been working as an agency nurse for two years and I'm never short of work. Agency work is truly varied and adds greatly to my knowledge and skills. It gives me the freedom to work when and where I want which fits in with my personal commitments.

"The confidence I have gained is immeasurable and I have increased my knowledge and skills in a way I would never have imagined possible. 

"I've also met so many friends and colleagues in different settings and learned something new from every one of them.”

Working as a mental health nurse in prison - Nurse taking blood

What are your long-term career plans?

“I prefer shift work and would be happy to continue working as an agency nurse for as long as I can. In terms of my professional development, I would like to return to university to study a forensic nursing module.

"Ultimately, I'd like to develop my career in the direction of cognitive behavioural therapy and counselling.”

How would you rate the support you have received from Medacs Healthcare?

“I've received excellent support from Medacs Healthcare. My consultant is both thoughtful and understanding.

"The support I have received is great and the reminders to keep up with mandatory training and current practices are invaluable, and if I ever have any issues, I know that help is only a phone call away. No problem is too trivial and I find this very reassuring.”

Find out more

Keen to learn more about gaining nursing experience in a prison setting? Contact us today to learn more about how we can support you in becoming a prison nurse. To register your interest, simply get in touch with our experienced Prison Nursing team via email or call 01785 256 434. Alternatively, please complete the form below:

*This post was updated on 28/01/2020 for accuracy and comprehensiveness.

Read more in the prison nursing series:

Becoming a Prison Nurse

What to Expect from a Career in Prison Nursing

How to Develop Your Career in Prison Nursing

Four Myths Surrounding Prison Nursing

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