When RN to BS student Christina Messer first graduated with her associate degree in nursing in 2013 it was the tail end of the recession. At the time, Messer was a full-time student and mother, and like many people she was struggling financially. “I was applying everywhere. There weren’t a lot of jobs, and my options were limited. I felt I couldn’t wait for the perfect opportunity,” Messer recalls.
Presented with two options – a position at a nursing home or one at the Jefferson County Detention Center – she chose the latter. “It helped that my aunt worked as an LPN at the facility. She convinced me to give it a try.”
Correctional nursing is often misunderstood
The first to admit she had her doubts, Messer says, “It didn’t sound that appealing, but my family really needed the benefits.” From personal safety concerns to the unique populations served to lack of resources, correctional nursing is often misunderstood. “I had the same biases as the general public about working in a jail. I wondered about my safety and the type of patients and situations I would encounter.”
Once she let go of her preconceptions, she discovered that this type of nursing was a perfect fit.
Initially hired into a Charge Nurse position, Messer had to learn to be a nurse and a leader at the same time. “That was extremely challenging. But I fell into something that works for me and suited my personality.”
Messer says that correctional nursing is probably safer than working in an ER. Yes, fights break out. Yes, the population has a high incidence of mental illness and homelessness. Yes, it can be extremely stressful. But what nursing job isn’t?
According to Messer, “I am never alone with the inmates. There’s always a deputy present. So, in some respects it’s actually safer than in a hospital, ER or urgent care. I know what to expect and am prepared.”
Small town feel with distinct characters all its own
A jail is like a small town with a community all its own. “It may not be Mayberry, but we have all the same issues and unique residents as a small town.” Because of this, the staff is very familiar with and knowledgeable of its residents. In an ER, patients walk in off the street and “you don’t know what you don’t know,” says Messer.
Correctional nursing is a growing specialty that’s evolving to meet the needs of incarcerated populations in a variety of settings. It is the ultimate in public health nursing. “As nurses we are the first to rush to their emergencies, care for their wounds, monitor their blood sugar, address their mental health issues and help with substance use withdrawal and medication assisted treatment.” And because it’s so hands-on, Messer says that she has gained some tremendous on-the-job diagnostic skills. “Because we don’t have access to a lot of equipment or technology, we have to rely on our knowledge, education, common sense and senses.” Correctional nursing requires a wide skill base that includes assessment, critical thinking, nursing process, patient education, substance use withdrawal management, communication, trauma effects and medication administration.
Community Health is her Calling
“I love my job. I get to advocate for this community and it feels good. Throughout the years, I have discovered that there’s tremendous need in community health that’s not being met.” And just like other populations, the correctional community needs compassionate nurses, too. To Messer’s surprise and after eight years serving this unique population, “I fell into something that works for me and is the perfect fit. My career has taken a natural course and is right where it should be. It’s where I belong.”
Even though Messer has learned a ton on the job, she is the first to agree she has so much more learning to do. That’s why she decided to earn a bachelor of science degree from CU College of Nursing. “I knew I needed to take the next step and always wanted to go to CU. And to do it online was extremely helpful while juggling kids and COVID,” Messer says. Her only regret is not going back to get her bachelor’s degree sooner. “Being a single mom, I had to make hard choices on what I could afford to do. The pandemic proved the perfect time to go back to school.”
Messer outside the Jefferson County Detention Center