How to Become a Correctional Nurse

July 12, 2022 · 6 Min Read

Reviewed by Shrilekha Deshaies MSN, CCRN, RN

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Interested in providing healthcare to one of the most underserved patient populations? Consider becoming a correctional nurse working with inmates in prisons, jails, and other correctional facilities.

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How to Become a Correctional Nurse
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Correctional nurses provide healthcare services to inmates in correctional institutions. Responsibilities include treating injuries and acute and chronic illnesses, responding to emergency situations, and presenting preventive health education.

Although this career can be physically and emotionally challenging, working with incarcerated populations provides an opportunity to improve their quality of life and contribute to rehabilitation. Use this guide to explore how to become a correctional nurse and what to expect from this career.

What Is a Correctional Nurse?

Correctional nurses usually work with incarcerated individuals in jails and prisons. They may also find employment in juvenile detention group homes, halfway houses, and work release settings. They treat a variety of medical conditions and may provide healthcare education to patients. These nurses sometimes work with administrators to develop health and safety protocols.

Nurses can enter the field as a licensed vocational/licensed practical nurse (LVN/LPN) or a registered nurse (RN). Many correctional nurses acquire certifications to show they have the specialized training to work in a prison environment.

Steps to Becoming a Correctional Nurse

Aspiring correctional nurses can enter the field with an LVN/LPN certificate, an associate degree in nursing (ADN), or a bachelor’s of science in nursing (BSN). They must pass the NCLEX exam for either LPN or RN licensure and fulfill other requirements in the state where they intend to practice.

Almost all employers require these nurses to have some work experience in a correctional setting. Correctional nurses who pursue specialized certifications can enhance their marketability and salary potential.

1. Earn an LVN/LPN Certificate, ADN, or BSN Degree

An LVN/LPN non-degree certificate provides the quickest way to enter the field, requiring only one year of study. Correctional nurses interested in acquiring their RN license must complete an ADN, which typically takes two years, or a BSN, requiring four years.

LVNs or LPNs interested in continuing their education can pursue an LPN-BSN program. Nurses who have completed their ADN often enroll in RN-to-BSN programs that build on their nursing experience. Graduates with non-nursing bachelor's degrees can enter an accelerated BSN degree that prepares them for a nursing career in 18 months or less.

2. Pass the NCLEX Exam to Receive LPN/LRN or RN Licensure

State nursing boards use the National Council Licensure Examinations for practical or registered nurses to determine if nurses qualify to practice. After completing an LVN/LPN program, prospective correctional nurses must pass the NCLEX-PN. Graduates of ADN or BSN programs take the NCLEX-RN exam, usually about a month after completion of their studies.

3. Gain Clinical Experience in Nursing

While some nurses find employment in correctional facilities directly after receiving their license, employers generally seek out nurses with ample clinical experience to handle the demands of correctional nursing.

Nurses with an interest in correctional healthcare can prepare by acquiring experience in hospital settings, critical care units, emergency departments, and medical surgical settings. These nurses must develop broad skills to deliver the required level of care in difficult conditions.

4. Consider Professional Certification for Correctional Nurses

While not mandatory, many licensed correctional nurses decide to pursue specialty certifications to advance their careers. Most nurses pursue certification through the National Commission on Correctional Health Care (NCCHC) or the American Correctional Association (ACA).

The NCCHC awards the certified correctional health professional-RN credential plus the advanced correctional health professional and mental health certifications. The ACA offers a generalist certified corrections nurse certification and a more specialized certified corrections nurse manager credential.

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Correctional Nurse Education

Correctional nurses can begin their careers after one year of postsecondary education as an LVN/LPN. Others enter the field after earning a two-year ADN or four-year BSN degree and RN licensure. A growing number of correctional nurses pursue graduate degrees and specialty certification.

XLVN/LPN Non-Degree Certificate

The LPN/LVN certificate offers the quickest and least expensive path to enter correctional nursing. Most programs do not require prerequisites beyond standard high school coursework, although a strong background in math and science helps prepare students for the program. This certificate often serves as a stepping stone to an associate or bachelor's degree in nursing.

1. Admission Requirements

High school diploma or GED certificate; minimum 2.5 GPA

2. Program Curriculum

Fundamentals of nursing; anatomy; medications; processes of diseases

3. Time to Complete

One years

4. Skills Learned

Provide quality patient care and promote healing; teamwork; and communication and organizational skills

ADN Degree

Aspiring correctional nurses seeking a fast route to an RN license can pursue an ADN degree, which typically takes two years to complete. This degree prepares graduates for the NCLEX-RN. An ADN degree provides students with the opportunity to explore the field before deciding to enroll in a bachelor’s in nursing. Most BSN programs accept credits earned in an ADN degree, allowing ADN degree-holders to graduate in approximately two years.

1. Admission Requirements

High school diploma or GED certificate; minimum 2.0 GPA; ACT or SAT scores; recommendation letters; essay

2. Program Curriculum

Health assessments; medical surgical nursing; microbiology and immunology

3. Time to Complete

Two years

4. Skills Learned

Providing quality patient care; organizational, communication and interpersonal skills; collaborating with healthcare professionals

BSN Degree

Many employers prefer to hire BSN-holders for correctional nursing positions. Like the ADN, a BSN degree prepares graduates to qualify for the NCLEX-RN exam. This degree offers graduates broader career opportunities in administrative positions and higher salaries than an ADN degree. According to Payscale, nurses with BSNs earn over $15,000 more in average annual salary than those with ADNs as of May 2022.

A BSN also provides the prerequisites for master's or doctoral training. BSN degrees typically take four years to complete but many prospective correctional nurses take advantage of bridge programs and accelerated degrees to enter the field in three years or less.

1. Admission Requirements

High school diploma or GED certificate; minimum 2.5 GPA; ACT or SAT scores; prerequisites in microbiology, physiology, chemistry, and anatomy; recommendation letters; essay

2. Program Curriculum

Pharmacology; pathophysiology; psychology; research and statistics; leadership and management; community health nursing

3. Time to Complete

Four years

4. Skills Learned

Critical thinking and problem-solving; providing quality patient care; patient and family education; communication, interpersonal, and organizational skills; teamwork and collaborating with healthcare professionals

MSN Degree

Correctional nurses seeking career advancement as advanced practice nurses can earn an MSN degree. This degree prepares correctional nurses to practice as specialized nurse practitioners and clinical nurses or assume positions as nurse managers and policy makers. The time needed to complete an MSN depends on prior nursing experience, previous degrees, and the intended nursing specialty.

1. Admission Requirements

ADN or BSN; valid RN license, minimum 3.0 GPA; two years work experience; recommendation letters; essay

2. Program Curriculum

Advanced topics in disease and injury treatment and prevention, pharmacology, leadership

3. Time to Complete

Two years

4. Skills Learned

Diagnosing and treating conditions, prescribing medications, leading healthcare teams; communication, interpersonal, and organizational skills; teamwork and collaborating with healthcare professionals

Correctional Nurse Licensure and Certification

At a minimum, a correctional nursing career requires a valid license as a practical nurse. Most employers prefer to hire RNs with either an ADN or BSN degree. Correctional nurses seeking broader career opportunities in advanced practice, clinical nursing, and managerial roles may benefit from acquiring a graduate degree and an APRN license.

While not a requirement for most positions, a growing number of correctional nurses pursue specialty certifications to enhance their marketability in the profession. LVNs, LPNs, and RNs with one year of work experience in a correctional setting can obtain the certified corrections nurse credential through the ACA.

The ACA also offers the certified corrections nurse/manager credential for RNs who hold an ADN, BSN, or MSN degree, or a three year nursing diploma. Candidates must have at least one year of correctional nursing management experience.

Many correctional facilities prefer to hire nurses with NCCHC's certified correctional health professional – registered nurse certification. Candidates must have an active RN license, at least two years full-time experience as a registered nurse, and 2,000 hours of practice in a correctional setting within the last three years.

Working as a Correctional Nurse

Correctional nurses' responsibilities vary by their employment setting. Those who work in jails and prisons typically provide direct care under a physician or advanced practice nurse practitioner, treating illnesses and injuries, and responding to emergencies. They may also conduct health screenings and educate inmates on preventative care.

Correctional nurses working in halfway houses perform many of the same duties in addition to providing education and counseling on developing healthy lifestyle habits. Nurses who work in group homes with juvenile offenders or parolees may focus on education and coaching for healthy behaviors, offering guidance on substance abuse prevention, contraception, and issues related to preventive healthcare.

Job prospects for all licensed nurses, including correctional nurses, remain strong. The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects a 9% increase from 2020-2030 for all registered nurses. However, employment opportunities for correctional nurses may vary depending on federal and state funding levels for correctional institutions. Ongoing national initiatives to reduce the inmate population will also affect employment for correctional nurses.

According to Payscale, correctional nurses earn an annual base salary of $68,185 with top earners making $95,000 a year as of May 2022. Overall compensation rates depend on several factors including experience, education and credentials, and geographic location.

Correctional nurses just entering the field can get help with job searching, resume writing, and interviewing skills through their nursing schools' career placement offices. Professional organizations such as the National Commission on Correctional Health Care and the American Correctional Association provide opportunities for networking and professional development. Online job postings maintained by the American Nursing Association often list openings in correctional nursing.

Frequently Asked Questions About Becoming a Correctional Nurse

How many years does it take to become a correctional nurse?

LVNs/LPNs can enter the field after completing a one-year nursing program. An ADN program typically takes two years to complete, while a BSN takes four years. Bridge and accelerated programs can reduce the time needed to complete a nursing degree.

What skills do you need to become a correctional nurse?

Correctional nurses need patient care skills in medical-surgical, internal medicine, emergency, and critical care nursing. The most successful nurses must be able to handle stress while maintaining an awareness of their environment and safety. They must also develop an understanding of the inmate populations they serve and the ability to remain compassionate and flexible.

How hard is it to become a correctional nurse?

Correctional nursing is not for everyone. In addition to the years of education and clinical training needed to earn a nursing license, these nurses must be prepared to work in challenging, unpredictable, and stressful environments, handling both routine and emergency situations.

Can LPNs and LVNs work in correctional nursing?

While some correctional facilities only hire RNs, nurses who have completed a nursing certificate program and passed the NCLEX-PN exam often find employment in various correctional settings. These nurses typically work under the supervision of a physician or advanced practice registered nurse.

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