Correctional health nursing director at Ontario County Jail works to make a difference.

CANANDAIGUA — Helping a person achieve even a remote change for the better in their life makes the effort worthwhile.

That sentiment is a frame of mind that Middlesex resident Joan Mitchell has developed during her career in the medical field — a career that spans 37 years as a registered nurse. 

Now, applying that mentality to a career behind the walls of a correctional facility? The 63-year-old didn't anticipate that. However, there she is today — working as the correctional health nursing director of the Ontario County Jail.

It started with a few inmate blood draws at the facility while she was employed by Thompson Hospital. Then one day, Ontario County Undersheriff Dave Tillman asked the registered nurse if she would be willing to work in the jail’s medical department for one year. She agreed. 

“I’m now on my 11th year here,” Mitchell said.

She added that she’s satisfied by her decision to stick around, displayed recently when she became one of the few nurses in her career field to earn specialty federal certification in the field of correctional nursing. 

To become a Certified Correctional Health Professional-RN, Mitchell demonstrated the ability to deliver specialized nursing care in corrections. It's a speciality that offers a unique experience each day she checks in to work. 

“As a nurse you are privy to experiences that you would otherwise never experience,” Mitchell said. “You live it though the patient’s eyes and you go through it with them.”

Mitchell has access to a chart showing that the medical facility in the jail has seen slightly more than 5,500 inmate patients from January 2016 to June 2016 — an average of nearly 920 patients who enter the department each month. 

The department looks like a typical medical clinic, except strewn with black bubbles protruding from the ceiling that house cameras that can be tapped into at any point by deputies who monitor the facility. Also unique are the cells set aside for inmates who might end up on suicide watch. 

Inside the department, a team of six registered nurses and a nurse practitioner have a lot to do, including overseeing care management for the occasional HIV-positive patients, handing out medications, and providing care for the occasional pregnant woman housed in the facility, as well as helping along those who are dealing with opioid or alcohol withdraw symptoms. 

When Mitchell first took the job, it was hard to know what to expect, but the rampant presence of alcohol and drug abuse was a bit of a surprise. Mitchell points out that substance abuse problems impact well over 50 percent of the inmates at the Ontario County Jail. 

It’s a problem that she says starts with the treatment of mental health, which leads into substance abuse. The end result is the inevitability of crime and the individual's placement in jail.

However, Ontario County is in a better situation than most jails across New York state in offering an array of betterment programs, including classes offered to inmates that allow them to  receive a GED as well as BOCES options.

“We have beyond what most jails have,” Mitchell said. 

In the medical realm that especially applies, as the facility offers eye care and dental service, and even a local podiatrist who comes on site for those needing special foot care. Also, there's an array of mental health care offered to those who enter the facility. 

The jail provides the tools necessary so the inmate can return to the community, according to Jennifer Michael, director of mental health at the Ontario County Jail, whose office is housed inside the facility's medical department.

Just help the inmate improve just a small amount, as Mitchell said, and the ultimate goal is that they don't return to the jail. 

“We tend to put out of our mind what the person is here for and you treat them as the person sitting in front of you,” Mitchell said. 

She noted that every now and then she'll run into people she has treated at the jail outside the facility, following their release. 

“They might wave at you or come up to you and say they're doing OK,” Mitchell said. 

“You can make an impact on people," she continued. "You gain from the person that you’re taking care of. As a nurse, I’ve gotten almost as much from that person as I have given.”