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Why undetected disabilities can be dangerous in a facility

Inmates can have functional disability that makes them vulnerable to perdition and injury

Do you know the physical abilities and disabilities of the inmates under your responsibility? We all know that the average age of the inmate population is increasing and that this group’s biologic age is greater than chronologic. In fact, most departments of correction consider inmates age 50 or higher to be elderly.

It is not surprising then, that inmates can have functional disability that makes them vulnerable to perdition and injury. A recent study in the California Department of Correctional and Rehabilitation (CDRC) confirms that inmate disability is on the rise. This is a safety concern for security staff as well as the inmate population.

Officers need to be aware of the type and degree of disability of inmates they manage, yet the CDRC study found that almost a third of geriatric inmates were unknown to their assigned officer. Tuning in to the functional abilities of aging inmates can prevent dangerous situations from developing. A survey published by the American Correctional Association in 2008 found only 13 states had dedicated units and 9 states had dedicated prisons for older prisoners. That leaves many facilities managing older and potentially disabled inmates within the general inmate population.

Disability can include a wide array of physical and mental conditions that make an individual unable to cope independently. A disability can be as simple as difficulty walking, lack of balance, or forgetfulness. It can progress to confusion, agitation and incontinence. In the community setting common aging disabilities are managed by family and friend caregivers. Aging inmates do not have access to this support system. Corrections officers must often stand in the breach to identify and manage the situation.

Some disabilities can make life difficult such as needing assisting devices to walk. Others can be dangerous for both the inmate and the security staff. Hearing loss can cause an inmate to respond inappropriately to an officer command. Forgetfulness and confusion can lead to conflict with cellmates or in the housing unit. Older inmates may function adequately in normal incarceration activities but be unable to handle additional issues such as walking while being handcuffed.

A primary intervention when disability is noted is contact with the facility health unit. A full evaluation will indicate both treatment options and any need for reclassification or reassignment. A good relationship with the medical and mental health service unit staff can smooth operations and increase your safety and that of your team mates and inmate population.

You probably didn’t enter the corrections profession to deal with health care issues. That is totally understandable. Yet, from the prospective of custody, care and control, you should be ever alert to the functional abilities of the inmates you manage. Intervening when disability and decreased functionality is noted can be a life saver!

Dr. Schoenly has been a nurse for 30 years and is currently specializing in correctional healthcare. She is an author and educator seeking to improve patient safety and professional nursing practice behind bars. Her web-presence, Correctional Nurse, provides information and support to those working in correctional health care. Her books, Essentials of Correctional Nursing and The Correctional Health Care Patient Safety Handbook are available in print and digital on Amazon.

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