Nursing behind bars: Q&A with student nurse, Laura, who shares her prison placement experience

One of the incredible things about nursing is that it is one of the few professions that reaches people in every part of society. This includes prisons which could arguably be considered one of the most challenging environments in which to nurse. Earlier this year student nurse Laura Golightly (pictured) was among a handful of student nurses to be placed at a prison in Manchester. We are delighted to share this Q&A with Laura who describes her experience working alongside the prison nursing team, including the daily challenges but also the huge variety of nursing skills and confidence she gained from this rewarding placement.Laura pic

What originally drew you to applying for a placement in a prison?

I have always had a fascination with prisons since growing up and watching compelling documentaries made by influential documentary makers like Louis Theroux. For many people, and certainly for me, this sub-section of society living their life behind bars in massive secure institutions was really intriguing and something that I felt I could have no real concept of. The reality of life within prison is often something that’s kept very private from the general public, including the mental and physical health problems faced by inmates and the concept of institutionalisation, this threw up some really interesting and thought provoking societal questions about the effectiveness of the prison system as a whole which I really wanted to explore, not only as a health professional, but on a human level also. It had really been a desire of mine to work within a prison, safe guarding very vulnerable members of society, before the opportunity even arose so when I saw the email detailing the placement, I knew I would do everything in my power to secure it.

How did you feel when you arrived for your first day?

I was completely overwhelmed when I first stepped foot into the prison for my first day. Starting a new student placement can be intimidating at the best of times, I’m often left feeling anxious about meeting the staff, performing up to standard, not knowing enough and many of those little worries that seem to occupy your head before starting a new placement. There is certainly plenty to consider turning up on your first day so then to be turning up to a huge Victorian building which seems to dwarf even such vast city centre buildings surrounding it, complete with barbed wire running around the parameter and prison staff greeting you with a sharp eye and a pat-down, well it certainly puts things into perspective. The first day my mentor took me into the grounds and gave me the grand tour, we discussed what general day to day life is working within the prison and he soon made me feel at ease. I have to say though, it did come as a bit of a surprise when we discussed this over a coffee and he pointed out to me that the staff serving us in the café were actually inmates.

What was your daily routine like on placement? Describe an average day.

There was no real average day within the prison, this was one factors I particularly enjoyed about the placement! There are three main areas to work and these are on reception, on the health care unit and on inpatients. The role is vastly different on all three which was fantastic for bringing variety to the role as nurses were rotated throughout the week. On reception we would take care of the medications for all inmates leaving for court or being transferred out and we would medically ‘fit’ them for departure, we would then also take care of all inmates being transferred in, this was the really interesting part. We would conduct an assessment with the patient discussing their past medical history, recording observations, their general contact details, the reason they have come to prison, their mental health, health promotion advice and some screening tools, this was their first point of contact with the medical team so there is usually a fair amount to cover and they would have a follow up within the first 72 hours to once again check in on them and discuss anything they may need to add since their first assessment. A day on the health care unit would consist of giving the meds for a specified wing (which could often take hours with the cocktail of meds some inmates are on) and then reporting back to the health care unit to complete the clinics for the day. There was an afternoon clinic and a morning clinic within this prison and these would often be clinically very similar to a GP surgery clinic. There would be many different health professionals running specialist clinics also such as psychiatric, counselling, smoking cessation, sexual health, BBV, dentistry, optometry and more, just as you’d expect to see in the community. The inpatient unit was quite different all together as these were the extremely vulnerable patients, it mainly consisted of mental health nurses and prison officers who were specialised to deal with the kind of inmate that presented in the unit. It was nothing like what I could have imagined, with huge solid metal doors, no windows, rooms without anything at all inside, no real equipment and it seemed to be constantly deafening with lots of screams and shouts from inmates. On top of all this there was the emergency response radio one nurse would have responsibility for, this would be used to request emergency medical first response. While I was on placement I attended these calls for a range of incidents such as fights, overdoses, inmates high on illicit drugs, cardiac and respiratory disturbances and mental health crises.

What kind of clinical skills were you able to practice with the prison nursing team?

The clinics were fantastic for practicing clinical skills, with lots of hands on experience being available. ECGs, dressings, injections, wound closure, suture removal and observations were all common practice. Every morning and afternoon there was the opportunity to complete the medications round also and due to the vast opportunity for spokes within the prison I also managed to complete a mental health assessment, smoking cessation assessment and observe the work of the specialist drug and alcohol team.

What do you think are the most challenging aspects of prison nursing?

The most challenging aspect of nursing within the prison for me was the prison regime itself. Many individuals within the prison have very low wellbeing for obvious reasons. To prison staff they are inmates, however to medical staff they are patients, this creates a very tricky dynamic when it comes to dealing with their needs. Being unable to encourage patients with activities to promote wellbeing was very difficult, I struggled to encourage patients to be active when they are only entitled to one hour in the yard a day and they are kept locked up in their cell for such prolonged periods of time. I struggled to encourage patients to connect with loved ones when they are only allowed a certain amount of visitation and many of the relationships the prisoners keep are strained due to their absence from home. I struggled to encourage learning when often classes are full up with long waiting lists and staffing levels inappropriate for the level security needed. The problem with prisons is that they aren’t therapeutic environments and this creates a vicious cycle that many vulnerable people fall victim to.

What did you enjoy most about your placement in a prison?

I can honestly say I enjoyed everything about the placement. The staff were all fantastic, great fun, welcoming and always happy to teach, my student colleague on placement with me was lovely, the prisoners were generally very polite and interesting to talk to. Being exposed to all the different healthcare sectors and how they are applicable to the prison community, highlighting the different demands of this small sub-section of the outside population was fascinating and I learnt how to deal with a patient who’s needs were often vastly different than what I was exposed to in my general training so it was fantastic to gain this different and unique experience.

What I really want to get across to nurses that would potentially consider a career within the prison service is that it really is a fantastic and unique experience. Often patients have very complex needs and this can lead to a really exciting and challenging working environment which really allows you to make a difference for your patients. Many of my friends and family thought I was stupid for wanting a placement they perceived as so ‘dangerous’, I really want to communicate how safe I felt in there. The prison officers are very well trained and experienced and look after the safety of the medical staff absolutely superbly. Do not be discouraged by fears of safety as officers are always on hand to assist you and will never leave you alone with a prisoner. Security measures in there are top priority for prison management and you’d never be left to work in an unsafe environment. If you have a keen interest in working with challenging individuals and nursing in a holistic and non-judgmental manner with a particular interest in mental health then the prison environment could be just right for you.

Thank you, Laura! It is fascinating and valuable to hear from other student nurses and midwives working in all kinds of different placement areas. If you have an placement experience or reflection that you would like to share on our blog, please do get in touch! Find us on Facebook @UoMPlacementProject or email studentnurseplacementproject@gmail.com.

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