The lived experience of nurses' caring for inmate-patients

Date of Completion

January 2000


Health Sciences, Nursing




Today there are close to two million prisoners in the United States. Nurses who work in correctional facilities face a daunting task of caring for these men and women in the full context of their health care needs. Yet, there is a paucity of research on how nurses who work in correctional settings create caring and healing environments in these restrictive settings. The purpose of this phenomenological study was to describe the essential structure of the lived experience of nurses' caring for inmate-patients. Nine registered nurses, employed in correctional institutions were interviewed to illuminate the experience of caring for inmate-patients. Data were analyzed using Colaizzi's (1978) method of phenomenology. Textual analysis revealed that five themes depicted the meaning of nurses' caring for inmate-patients. The experience of nurses' caring for inmate-patients was described by nurse participants as an attempt to negotiate the boundaries between two different cultures, the culture of custody and the culture of caring. Nurses struggled to create a caring environment in a system that did not seem to value caring. They faced complex challenges, numerous frustrations, and a roster of limitations on the nurse-patient relationship. Despite the odds they faced, nurses strived to find a way to care for their inmate-patients. Caring for inmate-patients was permeated with risk for the nurse. This risk mandated that even though it is the nature of nurses to be caring, nurses remained cautious, on guard, and vigilant. Amidst these difficulties, nurses who cared for inmate-patients demonstrated courage in the work they did, strived to stay involved, and persevered for the sake of their inmate-patients and the moral imperative of nursing. ^ Dialogue must continue between prison and health care administrators in order to identify conflicting issues that impact the autonomy of health care treatment decisions for inmate-patients. Conducting joint orientation and inservice programs that include content related to joint decision making, self-awareness, and management of job stress might provide rich opportunities to increase sensitivity to how nursing and custody can best collaborate in the interest of caring for inmate-patients. ^