When Cody Ziegler, RN, was looking for a change from working in a hospital setting, he never expected to find himself in prison.
He hadn’t even considered working in a correctional facility until he came across a job posting – and applied to the Calgary Remand Centre.
“Everyone who is arrested, from those who have committed murders to those who simply have unpaid fines, waits at the Remand Centre through their entire court process, which often takes years,” explains Cody.
You would think that makes for an intimidating client population, but Cody says boundaries help: “Be very straightforward and lay down the rules. For example, we don’t touch people except to conduct medical assessments or administer treatments. That means no handshakes, back pats or hugs, all for security and equality reasons.”
Boundaries are also important to prevent manipulation, such as when inmates fake an illness with the goal of acquiring a specific medication.
Each shift, the RNs alternate who works in which area of the four practice areas in the Centre.
Vulnerable people include those who may have their stuff stolen, may get beat up, are manipulated into doing things by other inmates, suffer seizures, or may have developmental disabilities or head injuries. Others suffer from schizophrenia, or have suicidal or homicidal tendencies.
“It was a massive learning curve,” recalls Cody. “In my first month here, I wondered what I signed up for. This is by far the most challenging setting I’ve ever worked in because we’re outnumbered and a lot happens in a 12-hour shift.”
The officers treat everyone fairly and equally, Cody says. If an inmate attacks an officer, the officer appropriately subdues and handcuffs the inmate, then an RN assesses the inmate and treats injuries sustained by both the inmate and officer(s).
Officers maintain order and a strict schedule of meals, court, cell cleaning, fitness and bed time. Everything has a protocol and requires collaboration between officers and the RNs.
“Anywhere I go where an inmate has physical access to me, I have an officer with me,” says Cody. “I feel safer in a maximum security environment than in any previous position, due to officer supervision.”
The inmates respect health-care staff because they understand they’re there to help them.
“There is an honour system,” Cody says. “But this role comes with the responsibility of diffusing situations appropriately. I’ve gotten very good at being diplomatic.”
Though inmates are in a very stressful situation, Cody says most of his interactions with them are pleasant.
“They have a sense of humour,” says Cody. “It’s good for their mental health to make jokes and laugh.”
A lot of stigma is attached to being a criminal and an inmate, but it’s important that health-care providers don’t let that get in the way of caring for inmates. Cody has worked with high-profile offenders that are sensationalized by the media, but when he speaks to them, he gets a very different picture than the media portrays.
“I can review the life history of the inmates and see they had a bad life from a young age and weren’t given a chance to succeed. It’s important to remember that it takes just one major life event and a lack of coping skills for someone to turn to drugs or alcohol and become stuck in a cycle of addiction that’s very difficult to break,” says Cody.
Cody has experienced mental illness, addiction and homelessness within his own family and his work hits close to home.
“Working in a correctional facility and looking into inmates’ lives gave me a broader perspective for care,” Cody says.
“RNs have a very high level of critical-thinking ability and the ability to think independently through any situation, so it can be resolved efficiently and safely,” says Cody.
For example, when a riot occurs, a large number of inmates and officers are typically injured and the RNs immediately collaborate as a team to tackle the situation. Cody says it’s very rewarding to respond to those kinds of chaotic situations.
“We are all able to rapidly assess inmates and determine who needs care first,” Cody says. “We multitask and sometimes delegate tasks to officers.”
Cody says there’s no job like it.
“It’s very unique – there’s no job anywhere that you get this mix of skills. This is the one setting where I’ve taken care of the widest range of patients with different problems,” Cody says. “We have to be a little bit of a lab tech, an ECG technician… we talk to patients about medications; we do our own research. We learn about body systems and try to be prepared to deal with acute and chronic multisystem issues. Essentially, we learn a lot about a lot to help our population.”