The United States is the world’s leader in incarceration with a total inmate population reaching a staggering 2.4 million. The highest percentage of offenders are locked up for assault, robbery, drug possession, and violent crimes, including homicide. Their unlawful past doesn’t change felons’ human right to receive medical care though. Correctional nurses are prominent members of the jail health services team who treat convicts as their patients. Under tight security standards, correctional nurses assist physicians in administering treatment and medication to protect inmates’ health. Most are registered nurses (RNs) who’ve had specialized on-the-job training to handle the legal, safety, and sociological aspects of interacting with potentially dangerous criminals. Correctional nurses find themselves working on patients experiencing everything from influenza and asthma to broken ribs and stab wounds.


The Bureau of Labor Statistics states that the more than 2.7 registered nurses across the United States earn a mean annual wage of $71,000, or $34.14 per hour. Correctional nurses serving offenders in residential treatment centers make $60,930 per year. RNs working for state, regional, and county jails earn slightly less at $70,460 on average. Correctional nurses hired by the federal executive branch bring home more with a median salary of $82,620.

Beginning Salary

Registered nurses starting their careers in correctional facilities will likely land in the bottom 10th percentage of earnings with approximately $46,360 annually. Income potential varies significantly by state; for instance, California has an average yearly RN salary of $101, 260. It’s possible for senior correctional nurses to eventually claim salaries over $115,000. Those who advance as correctional nurse practitioners make up to $135,830 each year.

Key Responsibilities

Correctional nurses have the principal responsibility of providing acute and chronic care to offenders locked behind bars. These courageous RNs walk beyond security doors to provide medical treatment without regard to their patients’ criminal status. Correctional nurses must give prescribed medications under close supervision to prevent abuse. They’ll work closely with guards and correctional treatment specialists to ensure a safe healthcare facility. Specific duties will include checking vital signs, applying bandages, assisting with physicals, recording medical histories, drawing blood for labs, monitoring treatment progress, and accompanying inmates to a hospital if needed. Correctional nurses collaborate with primary care providers to treat felons in an ethical, timely manner.

Necessary Skills

Being proficient with an otoscope and phlebotomy is only the tip of the iceberg. Correctional nurses need additional skills beyond the traditional clinical competencies at the bedside. It’s essential that correctional RNs have the quick thinking skills to judge medical situations from minor to life-threatening. Organizational skills are imperative for RNs to properly monitor supplies like needles and scalpels that could be stolen and misused. Correctional nurses need the oral and written communication skills to assist health practitioners on several cases. Technical skills will help nurses adapt to today’s digital healthcare recordkeeping software. Senior correctional nurses will also need the leadership skills to counsel and supervise nursing staff, including LPNs.

Degree and Education Requirements

Correctional nursing is a special vocational calling that will require both nursing education and on-the-job prison training. Aspiring RNs should attend a nursing school accredited by the CCNE or ACEN for at least an associate degree. Earning a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) is strongly preferred for well-rounded clinical knowledge and practicum. Courses like physiology, pharmacology, health assessment, and biochemistry could be supplemented with a criminal justice minor for solid preparation. Correctional nurses who choose to pursue a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) are rewarded with advanced careers, such as prison nurse practitioner and clinical nurse specialist.

Pros and Cons of the Position

Registered nurses should be aware that working in a correctional facility comes with both pros and cons (no pun intended!). On the positive side, correctional nurses enjoy a good salary and benefits with potential to surpass their hospital colleagues. Prisons need round-the-clock care for emergency situations, so overtime pay is virtually unlimited. Correctional nurses can transfer to other facilities for fairly quick promotion. Variety is constant since inmates present the entire spectrum of symptoms to keep nurses on their feet. Correctional RNs could also help support the rehab of offenders to turn their lives around. However, nurses interact with patients who’ve committed atrocious acts, which can affect judgment. Correctional nurses may work long hours with poor choice in vacation time. Occasional turf battles can occur between COs and medical staff, especially when inmates are accused of “faking” symptoms. Correctional nurses also invest heavily in nursing school but won’t use certain skills like tracheostomy suctioning.

Getting Started

Nurses won’t need to attend a correctional training academy like guards; however, gaining on-the-job patient experience is necessary. During nursing school, consider specializing your clinical practicum in a correctional facility. Some may work as CNAs or LPNs in prisons before progressing to registered nurse. Passing the National Council Licensure Exam (NCLEX-RN) with flying colors is essential. The corrections hiring process is especially rigorous with panel interviews, criminal background checks, polygraph testing, and drug screening. Some states also require correctional nurses to hold special credentials. The National Commission on Correctional Health Care (NCCHC) has offered certification for 25 years. Nurses can pursue the CCHP-RN designation with 2,000+ practice hours, 54 continuing education credits, and a $305 examination fee.

Future Outlook

The Sentencing Project reports that incarceration in America has increased by a whopping 500 percent in the last four decades. It’s estimated that over $51 billion is spent to maintain correctional facilities yearly. Demand for correctional nurses is expected to rise as changes in sentencing law and policy keeps prisons crowded. Job prospects will remain favorable since the specialty has high turnover and a large number of retiring baby boomers. In fact, the United States is facing a critical shortage of over 525,000 replacement RNs. Employment of registered nurses will grow by 16 percent through 2024. Look for nursing openings in minimum to high security prisons, county jails, juvenile detention centers, military prisons, and residential rehab facilities.

Overall, correctional nurses are licensed health professionals with the clinical expertise to work inside prison walls to treat convicted felons and offenders awaiting trial. Correctional RNs often provide care within the facility’s secured mini-clinic, but escorted cell-side treatment may be given too. Nurses must follow the strict rules of these serious institutions for the safety of staff, inmates, and themselves. Becoming a correctional nurse is a brave move for compassionate individuals dedicated to upholding criminals’ constitutional right to adequate medicine.

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