Venna Little watches her supervisor Lisa Hirsch as she packages blood samples for patient testing.
It is Little’s first day on the job and she is quick to declare it “the best first day ever,” a potentially surprising statement to many people, considering she is Coconino County Jail’s newest corrections nurse.
“I just wanted a different experience and a chance to treat the under-served,” Little said about her reasoning to take a job in corrections.
Little’s enthusiasm is a potential lifesaver for the Coconino County Sheriff’s Office, which has a difficult time hiring and retaining nurses, mostly due to low pay.
“Salary is our biggest struggle when it comes to nurses,” jail commander Matt Figueroa said. “Most places are going to pay more than the jail and, regardless of the benefits we can give them, we are going to have trouble competing with other organizations that give a higher salary.”
A starting salary for a registered nurse at the jail is $57,000 to $60,000 per year, below the state average of $71,000 and under the $66,000 average in northern Arizona, according to the Nurse Salary Guide, which is an organization that tracks salaries across the nation.
“Trying to get past the starting salary and stay long-term with our organization is a tough thing to do,” Figueroa said.
The optimal number of nurses at the Coconino County Jail is eight, according to Lt. Bill Glenn, who supervises support operations. The jail currently has four registered nurses on staff, with two more in the final stages of the hiring process.
That currently leaves four nurses, a nurse supervisor and a nurse practitioner as the primary care givers for more than 400 inmates.
“Not having a full medical staff is a difficult situation,” Glenn said. “We have a relatively high population of inmates who need medical assistance due to substance abuse.”
However, despite a relatively high number of inmates awaiting trial for violent crimes, assaults on health care workers in the jail are rare.
“This is an environment full of inmates, but it is a more controlled environment than you will see outside,” Figueroa said. “In many ways working in the jail is safer than working in an emergency room, since you are going to have an officer with you all the time.”
In the last five years, only two assaults on nurses have occurred in the jail out of 10,000 bookings that the jail processes per year, according to data compiled by the Coconino County Sheriff’s Office.
“We have protocols that ensure that everyone stays safe,” Glenn said.
Hirsch, who has worked for 13 years in the nursing department of the jail, said she doesn't feel threatened working in corrections.
“The job has a lot of surprises and you don’t always know what you are going to deal with on a daily basis, but I feel incredibly safe working here,” she said.
Coconino County Sheriff’s Office Human Resources Manager Valerie Ausband said there are a number of benefits to working in corrections that someone working in the private sector may not have.
“I don’t know any place out there that is going to give you 10 guaranteed holidays and give you retirement,” Ausband said. “The grass is not always greener on the other side and while other places may pay more, you don’t have to worry about layoffs or cutbacks (here). We have the same number of nurses here no matter what the economy is doing.”