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Legal History of Correctional Nursing

Legal History of Correctional Nursing

Lorry Schoenly | Correctional Nurse

Part I

Where were you in November, 1976? Maybe not even born yet…but probably not thinking about health care in prisons and jails. However, November, 1976 could be deemed the official start of the profession of correctional nursing. This is the date of the landmark Estelle v Gamble Supreme Court decision which established health care as a constitutional right for US inmates based on the 8th Amendment (Cruel and Unusual Punishment).

According to Mary Muse, RN, MSN, in her article on the Evolution of Correctional Nursing Practice, organized correctional health care was rare. “Before the 1970s, much inmate health care was provided by other inmates, correctional officers and the occasional physician. The first documentation of correctional nursing may be a 1975 article by Rena Murtha, a director of nursing for a large correctional system. In her account, nurses were “a tool of the warden, a slave of the physician and an unknown to the patient.”

The Estelle v Gamble ruling established three basic rights for inmates because they are not free to seek care on their own.

#1 – The right to access to care

This is the primary and fundamental right established by the court decision. There must be capacity to deal with medical emergencies and provide needed health care, including continuation of medical management established prior to incarceration.

#2 – The right to care that is ordered

As a follow-up to access to care, once treatment is ordered by a health care professional, that care is to be provided without undue delay.

#3 – The right to a professional medical judgment

The concept of access to care involve the nature and timing of the care such that is is provided by qualified individuals using appropriate equipment, in conducive locations, and for purely medical reasons. Rold, in his excellent article, “Thirty Years After Estelle v. Gamble: A Legal Retrospective” cites as example a 1974 case in which an inmate with a severed ear was treated by having the ear removed and the stump stitched.

The establishment of these three basic health care rights for US inmates became the foundation of health care delivery and therefore nursing practice in the corrections environment.

Next: Part II >>


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