After moving to Texas from the Philippines nearly six years ago, Vincent Ong has found his niche.
As nurse manager of the Ramsey Cluster, which consists of three Texas Department of Criminal Justice prison units—Ramsey, Stringfellow and Terrell—Ong oversees a nursing staff of about 50 UTMB CMC employees who provide care to more than 4,300 offenders. It’s a big responsibility—and he loves it.
“I brought my family to the U.S. in search of better opportunities,” he says. “Working in the correctional managed care environment isn’t for everyone, but it is for me—I’ve been able to use all of my nursing training and management skills.”
Located in Rosharon, a small town less than an hour south of Houston, you know you’ve arrived at the Ramsey Cluster when you reach a water tower at the end of a long two-lane road surrounded by farmland. The three units are less than a mile apart and Ong visits each facility every day.
I meet up with him on a hot and humid mid-June morning outside the security tower at the Ramsey Unit, which started housing inmates more than 100 years ago. He offers a warm welcome and immediately eases any nerves about entering a correctional facility.
“How are you this morning?” he says with a smile to the security guard at the tower as he puts his ID card into a bucket. The guard raises the bucket using a rope and pulley system to look at Ong’s ID and then lowers it back down. The two banter about the arrival of summer weather before the gate opens and we walk toward the front entrance.
Although the cluster doesn’t house offenders with the highest custody levels, security is top priority. In addition to showing his ID several times, Ong also records his “in” and “out” times and must wait for guards to open doors into the main hallways and medical area.
“The difference between working at CMC and in the free world is really the security part,” he says. “Here, you have to be very security conscious—you can’t get complacent. Several weeks ago, we had an incident where a pair of scissors went missing in the clinic, so we literally locked down the entire medical unit until we found it. Fortunately, the scissors had just fallen between a table and the wall, but we always have to be careful.”
Ong greets the three physicians, nurses and administrative staff when he enters the medical unit. The morning is off to a busy start. Several offenders wait for appointments in a holding area and a security officer stands close by. I’m introduced to Stephen Hartman, a licensed vocational nurse (LVN) who gets to work every morning at 3 a.m. to start insulin injections for several hundred patients.
“Mr. Hartman comes in so early because diabetic offenders need insulin administered before they eat breakfast—and in prison, breakfast starts at 4 a.m.,” says Ong. “It takes two to three hours to finish all the shots and some patients line up for injections three times a day—before breakfast, lunch and dinner.”
Ong first started working at the Ramsey Unit as a charge nurse about two and a half years ago. With a strong background in nursing and management experience, he quickly rose to nurse manager. Ong steps in to provide clinical care when needed but devotes a much larger portion of his time to administrative responsibilities such as staffing and scheduling. He coordinates the nursing staff for Ramsey and Stringfellow clinics, which offer outpatient services and are open 15 hours a day, as well as the Terrell clinic, which is open 24 hours a day and includes 14 assisted-living beds. Among the three units, more than 250 patients are seen each day.
Ong knows his duties don’t end at 5 p.m.—he often gets calls after hours if a nurse calls in sick or has a patient or security issue.
“When I stepped into this role, I knew it was a 24/7 commitment,” he says. “As manager, I am fully accountable to the unit, my staff, patients and other managers. My staff works 12-hour shifts in a stressful environment. If, in my position, I can address any issues they are having to make the workplace better, I’ll gladly do it.”
Before heading to the next unit, Ong sits down to go over employee timesheets and conducts a few annual employee performance evaluations. As he meets with staff one-on-one, it’s obvious that he’s genuinely liked. He received the CMC Nurse Manager of the Year award in March, and all employees, whether they are with TDCJ, UTMB or a contracting agency, have good things to say about him.
“I’ve only been a nurse for a year and a half, but Vincent has taken me under his wing and is always right there to help if needed,” said Timothy Hampton, LVN. “I’m learning a lot—he’s a great coach.”
Ong admits he’s attention-shy and points to his motivated, committed team who make it all possible—even during natural disasters. Last year, the cluster had to evacuate thousands of offenders for several weeks following historic flooding of the Brazos River. As an onsite leader, Ong and many UTMB CMC employees helped coordinate the transfer of patients and medications to relief facilities.
“We had a list of which offenders would be on each bus and had to look up their medications, pack them up and send them on the correct busses, so they had at least a seven-day supply,” says Ong. “The notice to evacuate happened so fast, but everyone came together and made it as seamless as possible. It was a team effort.”
Thankfully, disasters of that level don’t happen often. Ong notes that the Ramsey clinic is running smoothly and checks in with his colleagues before taking the short drive to the Stringfellow Unit. After getting through security and entering the medical area, he learns that an ambulance has been called to transport an offender to the emergency room at UTMB’s Angleton Danbury Campus.
“In a correctional setting, nurses deal with a wide range of health care needs, including chronic conditions, injuries and infectious diseases,” explains Ong. “While we can handle a lot of different outpatient situations, sometimes an inpatient setting is more appropriate and the Angleton Campus is close by when a patient needs a higher level of medical attention.”
Once the patient is transferred to EMS and the clinic quiets down, Ong spends the rest of his afternoon hopping between the Stringfellow and Terrell units to round with his staff and complete more one-on-one employee evaluations.
“It’s just that time of year—employee evaluations are due and I like to go over goals with each staff member,” he says. “It’s so important to keep staff motivated. I always try to focus on what people are doing right. Recently, I’ve been an avid fan of the ‘Going the Extra Mile,’ or GEM awards. Just last night, I gave four employees GEM cards because they came in on short notice and made sure we had adequate staffing.”
I part ways with Ong after accompanying him to the Terrell Unit, where he greets his staff at the nurses station. He’s found his niche, and hopes to encourage others to do the same.
“My favorite thing is being able to inspire people to be more and do more,” he says. “The staff here is very receptive and is always looking for ways to do things better. We provide great nursing care for everyone, it’s that plain and simple."