WALLA WALLA, Wash. – 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, a clinical assistant professor in the WSU College of Nursing.
It also provided great experience to share with students she teaches.
After getting her nurse practitioner’s license, she returned to the penitentiary for four years. She handled her own caseload, just as a psychiatrist would. She assessed inmate personalities, diagnosed their problems, devised treatments and wrote prescriptions.
“The experience drastically improved my teaching ability, as I brought my clinical experiences into the classroom,” Mason said.
She no longer practices behind bars but is busy coordinating and teaching WSU nursing students in Walla Walla and working on her doctor of nursing practice degree.
But Mason said she still carries with her the lessons she learned.
She said 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 a way of tricking her into prescribing drugs for them? She said she developed a kind of radar to figure out which inmates were play-acting and which were genuine.
Bruce Gage, chief of psychiatry for the Washington Department of Corrections, said 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,” said Gage, “thereby reducing both the costs and problems associated with untreated or improperly treated mental illness.”