When correctional nurse author and educator Lorry Schoenly, PhD, RN, was writing a book about nursing in prison, her publisher asked her who would buy the book. “We were trying to figure out how many correctional nurses there are,” said Schoenly who scoured state boards of nursing for the numbers of those specializing in corrections. But, unlike cardiology or obstetrics, correctional nursing was rarely listed as a specialty and Schoenly was unable to get a reliable count. “It’s an invisible field,” she said.
But even though centralized data on staffing trends in corrections healthcare is elusive, the demand for NPs and PAs is expected to grow. According to UConn Health, which currently staffs Connecticut’s correctional institutions with “half MDs and half midlevels,” increasingly more “midlevels” are being utilized. “Future job growth will most likely continue to rise as incarcerated populations rise and the age of the population rises,” a UConn Health representative told MedPage Today in an email.
This increase in life sentences, along with longer sentences and more incarceration late in life, has contributed to a trend, often referred to as the greying of the inmates. “People are growing old in prison,” said Owen Murray, DO, MBA, vice president of offender health services at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston.
UConn Health noted that inmates 50 and older are the fastest growing demographic in federal prisons. With advancing age comes an increase in chronic disease, physical disability and cognitive decline. In Texas, there is pressure to either maintain current staffing or add more providers due to this shifting demographic. Spending per state is associated with, among other factors, the percentage of individuals 55 and older who are incarcerated, according to the Pew Charitable Trusts.
Greater use of NPs and PAs is one way prisons can provide legally required standards of care at lower cost. “The real impetus to use the lowest cost practitioner is not because there is less attention to quality, but to drive down healthcare costs,” said Kamala Mallik-Kane, MPH, a researcher at the Justice Policy Center at the Urban Institute.
Murray has noticed a rising presence of NPs and PAs over the past three decades. “Certainly as it relates to both jail and prison medicine, there has been a significant increase not just within the state of Texas but pretty much every other state that I’m familiar with in terms of the growth opportunities for midlevel providers.”
According to the American Academy of Physician Assistants, the absolute number of PAs working in prisons increased from 1995 to 2015. For NPs, a survey conducted by the American Association of Nurse Practitioners demonstrated that since 1999 the estimated NP population working in corrections has grown from 550, or 0.8%, of total NPs in 1999, to 2,400, or 1.1%, in 2016.
According to UConn Health, staffing depends on the medical acuity of the inmates, the inmate population and the level of onsite infirmary services.
Predicting future workforce demand for NPs and PAs depends on many conditions beyond sentencing, policy, and crime rates, according to National Institute of Corrections, and incarceration rates could change again depending on policy of the Trump administration. Whether that means releasing low-level offenders, potentially increasing the number of immigrant detainees, diverting offenders from the criminal justice system, or rollbacks in sentencing reform is unclear.
As people enter prison with high health needs – from a lack of preventive healthcare, substance abuse, or homelessness — for some, incarceration provides stability. “There’s an expression,” said Mallik-Kane, “three hots and a cot,” meaning regular meals and shelter. “A person with medical needs might now have access to healthcare. On the other hand, there’s criticism of the quality of prisoner health services.”
In an Urban Institute study of a group of people returning to a major city from prison, 80% of men and 90% of women had chronic health conditions requiring treatment or management; 15% of men and more than one-third of women reported a diagnosis of depression or mental illness.
In Texas, as the complexity of care has grown, the demand for PAs and NPs has grown. “The midlevel provider group has really become the backbone of our delivery system augmented with our physician group,” said Murray.
Yet as prisoners’ medical acuity has increased, healthcare spending in corrections has decreased from a peak in 2009. In some states, the downturn stems in part from a reduced prison population. But states with relatively larger shares of older inmates have higher per-inmate spending for these more complex patients continues to pose a fiscal challenge.
According to Maria Schiff of The Pew Charitable Trusts, outsourcing the employment of clinicians has become increasingly appealing for states to overcome the challenges of recruiting healthcare workers to remote prisons. Private entities can offer hiring incentives, student loan repayments, and bonuses where state agencies are prohibited from doing so.
Schiff said there are 50 different programs in the U.S. since each state raises its own tax money and allocates to corrections. “There’s no nurse to patient ratio that is standard among hospitals, and [corrections departments] are no different, but states do track the age, the gender and certainly the average daily census of who they’re incarcerating,” she said. Anecdotally, several states noted that their staffing ratio of NPs or PAs to physicians is about two to 2.5 to one.
Two issues that remain for any provider considering a job in corrections is their personal safety and litigation exposure.
Unlike outpatient settings, providing continuity, rapport and safety in correctional healthcare can sometimes prove impractical. Inmates are moved often and even in secured settings, the risk of violence and danger is ever present. “A big theme is always personal safety,” said Schoenly. “And the expectation is that you’re doing evidence based standard of care because it’s very litigious. We have a saying that if you haven’t been named in a lawsuit, you haven’t been in correctional healthcare very long.”
The Joint Commission’s presence is limited in correctional healthcare. Unless a health care organization is in a state that requires its accreditation or is in part of an agency such as Veteran’s Affairs or the Department of Defense, which also require accreditation, its process is voluntary. The Joint Commission doesn’t require specific staffing levels, but it does require a sufficient number and mix individuals to support safe care. The American Correctional Association (which declined to comment for this article) and National Commission on Correctional Healthcare operate in corrections and can be consulted to review their policies and procedures. Accreditation can sometimes offer a layer of protection against malpractice, but does not ensure immunity.
These risks do come with rewards, said Schoenly, who views correctional healthcare as a mission to serve the most underserved population in healthcare, and one with broad public health implications, since most inmates do return to society. “You realize that this is really a part of our society who is marginalized and who desperately needs healthcare,” said Schoenly. “And the idea that it’s a vulnerable population with great need can draw in individuals who want to possibly help and improve society.”