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What's the career path for a nurse in offender health services? And what's it really like to work as a prison nurse? We take a look at the key issues involved in working in this challenging but rewarding healthcare sector.

Do you need special qualifications to be an offender healthcare services nurse?

The simple answer is 'no'. You just need to be a qualified, NMC-registered nurse. However, there's inevitably a greater focus on mental health, alcohol and substance misuse, and learning difficulties. Therefore, it will help if you have specialist experience in these areas. At interview you may be asked to demonstrate knowledge and understanding of healthcare in a criminal justice context, so it's worth doing a bit of preparatory reading. NHS England's Strategic Direction for Health Services in the Justice System: 2016-2020 gives a useful overview.

Why do nurses choose jobs in offender health?

There's a variety of reasons. Many nurses are attracted by the opportunity to make a real difference to the lives of some of the most vulnerable members of society. Others enjoy the wide-ranging nature of the role, which in many ways is similar to that of a general practice nurse, but with the added challenges of working with people who need a particularly high level of support. You may also support doctors in performing minor surgery.

What sort of key skills and personal qualities does a prison nurse need?

You'll need to have good listening, communication and problem solving skills, as well as being able to work effectively under pressure. You'll also need to be highly organised because you may be juggling a number of priorities at the same time, not to mention caring for patients who have a range of complex medical conditions.

In what types of settings do prison nurses work?

As a prison nurse, you will be employed directly by Her Majesty's Prison Service (HMPS), by the NHS or by a private contractor. You may be working in an open or high security prison, a women's prison or a young offenders' institution (YOI). The set-up will be similar to a general practice, so you will work as part of a multi-disciplinary team of health practitioners, including doctors, pharmacists, psychotherapists, physiotherapists and occupational therapists.

What about pay and conditions?

Prison nurses employed by the NHS are covered by the Agenda for Change (AfC) pay scales. You will usually start at Band 5 and work a standard 37.5 hours per week. For prison nursing jobs outside the NHS, for example in the National Offender Management Service, terms and conditions can vary.

What are the risks?

Understandably, many nurses will be concerned about the risks of working in a custodial setting. However, experienced prisoner officers are always present at consultations between nurses and inmates and, at all times, nurses are supported by a network of colleagues, including managers, social workers and those responsible for pastoral care, for example priests. Therefore, the risks are probably lower than working in a general nursing setting.

What are the opportunities for personal development?

As well as the usual continuing professional development activities, specialist training is available for prison nurses, facilitated by the partnership between the NHS and HMPS. There are also several routes for career development, including specialisation and senior nursing roles. Find out more here.

For the latest job opportunities in offender health services contact Alex Herd, tel 0333 7000 024, email
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