To kickstart my final year as a student nurse, I elected to have a placement in Wandsworth prison – a decision I quickly doubted. As somebody who gets tense phoning the bank, I couldn’t help but become quite nervous when it sunk in that I’d be working in one of Britain’s largest men’s prisons.
I felt overwhelmed when seeing documentaries surrounding work in prisons; it looked violent, unforgiving, scary, and filled with ‘society’s villains’. It simply wouldn’t be the same, nurturing relationship I would encounter caring for a sweet elderly lady on a general medical ward in a little community hospital.
My apprehension was reinforced as I first approached the prison gates, hearing alarms blaring just beyond them. But once escorted through, I was met with one of the warmest welcomes I’d received in a clinical placement. A sea of smiles greeted my fellow student nurse and I – we both immediately felt part of the team.
My first clinical shift was with the emergency response nurse, who introduced me to prison nursing face first, in at the deep end, with arguably no diving gear, no goggles and no idea. However, within the first minute of treating my first patient, I realised that the prisoners were certainly not society’s villains as I’d previously believed, but some of the most vulnerable patients I had ever cared for.
There was a stronger sense of community, with prisoners looking after each other and a sense of respect between them, the officers and the healthcare team. I also quickly realised that, often prisoners are faced with barriers in their access to healthcare, with both the officers and healthcare team at Wandsworth prison working tirelessly to ensure they receive the care they need.
The wings of the prison are often loud, but I’ve not worked in many hospital wards that aren’t like that. I won’t pretend that I wasn’t presented with conflict, stress and challenges that I’d never encountered before, but it meant that I learnt an incredible amount.
I worked predominantly with the emergency response nurse, meaning we would be presented with a myriad of health problems – managing overdoses, trauma, chest pain, substance misuse, alcohol detoxing, self-harm, psychosis, seizures and severe concussions.
The nature of the environment meant that independent clinical judgement and rapid, accurate assessments were key. This fostered a fantastic teaching environment, as my practice supervisors would often let me take the lead but continued to support me, helping me develop immensely.
The nursing team were some of the most intelligent, proactive and highly skilled nurses I’ve ever had the pleasure of working with. Many times solutions could only be met by thinking outside of the box, giving room for the nurses to deliver truly compassionate, person-centred care.
In such an overlooked area of care delivery, I feel these unsung heroes deserve more acclaim for the work they do. The stigma and fear surrounding prison healthcare doesn’t do the reality justice, and I would encourage my peers to consider gaining experience in this area.
The privilege of working inside Wandsworth prison, learning from incredible clinicians, and caring for an incredibly complex patient group has taught me so much, and since starting there, not once did I regret my decision. I may still be afraid of phoning the bank, but I’m most certainly not afraid of stepping inside a prison.