Providing Mental Health Care to Inmates
By Doug Nadvornick
Years ago, when Anne Mason was studying to become a psychiatric nurse practitioner, the Walla Walla native didn't have to drive far to get to her laboratory: the Washington State Penitentiary.
"It was a great opportunity to work in an inpatient psychiatric facility," said Mason, now a clinical assistant professor in the WSU College of Nursing.
She says she spent more than 300 hours as a student working at the state facility. Later, after getting her nurse practitioner's license, she returned to the penitentiary. For four years, Mason worked a few days a week with inmates. She handled her own caseload, just as a psychiatrist would. She assessed their personalities, diagnosed their problems, devised treatments and wrote prescriptions, just as a psychiatrist would.
"The inmates we worked with get good care. And I think we helped to improve the safety of society," she said.
Mason no longer practices behind bars. She's busy coordinating and teaching WSU nursing students in Walla Walla and working on her own Doctor of Nursing Practice degree. But she says she's still interested in how mental health care is delivered in correctional facilities.
Mason says one of the most difficult parts of working with inmates is determining the extent of their chemical dependencies. For example, do they play games with the provider as way of tricking her into prescribing drugs for them? She says she developed a kind of radar to figure out which inmates were playacting and which were genuine.
Dr. Bruce Gage, chief of psychiatry for the Washington Department of Corrections, says psychiatric nurse practitioners like Mason supplement the work of psychiatrists in prisons.
"Having an appropriate mix of psychiatrists and nurse practitioners allows us to provide the most effective service in the most efficient manner," says Gage, "thereby reducing both the costs and problems associated with untreated or improperly treated mental illness."
Now that she's away from the prison, Mason says she misses the chance to make a difference in inmates' lives. But she says she still carries with her the lessons she has learned.
"The experience drastically improved my teaching ability as I brought my clinical experiences into the classroom," she said.