CONCORD, N.H. – Nurses in New Hampshire's state prisons are getting a 15 percent pay raise in an effort to recruit more workers and remain competitive amid a growing national demand for nurses.
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Almost one-fifth of the state's 48 prison nursing positions were vacant in fiscal year 2016, prompting nurses to work longer hours in an already high-stress environment. Prison nurses care for more than 2,000 inmates each day. And nursing jobs have one of the highest turnover rates in state government.
Officials are hoping the boost, approved Wednesday by the executive council, will help change that. Councilors approved $239,000 to cover the raise for the next five months. Assistant Corrections Commissioner Helen Hanks says it will take effect immediately. For non-supervisors, that will boost hourly pay from $28 to $32 on the low end and from $38 to $43 on the high end. The raise applies to nurses at the men's prisons in Berlin and Concord, the women's prison in Goffstown and the secure psychiatric unit in Concord. It matches a bump already given to nurses at the state psychiatric hospital and veterans home.
"I do think it's important that correctional nursing is recognized for really the diverse nature of what they have to respond to and the aggressiveness of the day," Hanks said.
Prison nurses provide emergency response, administer medication, provide hospice and infirmary care, monitor patients requiring drug detox and perform duties similar to nurses elsewhere. But prison patients can be tough to deal with due to limited coping skills or other challenges that may have landed them in prison, said Ryan Landry, nursing coordinator at the Concord prison. Physical violence is rare, but verbal threats toward nurses do occur.
"I think nine times out of 10 it's that part that makes someone leave and seek out a different employment opportunity," he said.
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About a quarter of the state's prison population is over age 50 and starting to exhibit health care problems associated with aging, Hanks said. The need for health care workers will only increase as New Hampshire's population inside and outside of the prisons ages.
The high vacancy rate in New Hampshire's prisons mean many nurses are asked to work forced overtime, turning an eight-hour shift into a 12- or 16-hour workday, Landry said. Long days can increase the burnout rate even more.
The demand for nurses nationally is increasing as the population ages. A 2015 Georgetown University study predicted a shortfall of nearly 200,000 nursing professionals nationwide by 2020.
"We're all competing for the same resource," Hanks said.