At every prison in the country prisoners have access to a grievance procedure intended to help them resolve issues arising between themselves and staff at their facility. This procedure varies from state to state but is designed based upon the laws of the state with which the institution resides. It’s then codified within a set of administrative rules promulgated by the department of corrections.
Most prisoners don’t know how to use the grievance procedure. If you have a loved one that’s incarcerated it’s important they seek out and learn the policies of the department of corrections and specifically the grievance procedure. When I began my sentence, I was fortunate that my peers
pulled me aside and told me the necessity of understanding policy and how to properly utilize the grievance procedure. To learn policy and how to use the grievance procedure is to protect against unprofessional conduct at the hands of staff. I think however, that I should detail this statement further. It’s my experience that the majority of misconduct is had by a small cadre of unprofessional staff and is not representative of the profession as a whole. The depth of this conduct tends to be proportionate to the willingness of superiors to turn a blind eye to abuses.
I’ve been on the receiving end of staff reprisal and had I not had an understanding of the grievance procedure I would’ve suffered excessively. I’ve communicated with prisoners in dozens of states, and my experience is illustrative of what occurs at facilities nationwide. While this is true, there are exceptions on both ends of the spectrum.
The Grievance Procedure: A Case Study Example
Allow me for the sake of illustration to show the consequences of staff misconduct and how this ties into the grievance procedure. I’ll use a 2021 incident as a base example and how the prisoner would have used the grievance procedure.
This blog recently posted an essay by a prisoner at the Endna Mahan Correctional facility (EMCF) in the custody of the New Jersey Department of Corrections (NJDOC). She wrote about a January 2021 event at her facility where custody staff had assaulted a transgender prisoner. Staff superiors encouraged and coordinated an attempted cover up. This January event made national news “31 Guards Suspended At Women’s Prison Plagued By Sexual Violence” (NYTimes.com) and charges were brought forth against staff and superiors: “Five More Charged In Edna Mahan Women’s Prison, Including Top Administrator On Duty” (cbs58.com).
The grievance procedure is specifically designed to initiate an investigative process that would, in theory, have held staff accountable in the January 2021 EMCF incident. The assaulted prisoner would have initiated the grievance process by filing an “Informal Complaint”, which here in Ohio falls under Administrative Rule 5120-9-31. An informal complaint or ICR form is the first step in the grievance procedure, and it is here where the prisoner would detail to the supervisor of the staffer(s) in question the particulars of the event.
A properly written ICR begins by citing an Administrative Rule violated (in this case “Inappropriate Supervision”) forcing supervisors to address the policy violation. Ninety nine percent of prisoners don’t understand the importance of citing a violated policy. Their ICR filings are written in a manner that states an accusation without citing exact policy violation, and 95% of the time results in supervisors intentionally or unintentionally not addressing the core issue. If the outcome of the informal complaint was not satisfactory to the prisoner, she would have then utilized the next step in the grievance procedure and filed a formal ‘grievance’.
Grievances are filed and sent to the Inspector of Institutional Services (IIS) who is a staffer appointed by the warden. The IIS is intended as an unbiased and objective third party who is able to investigate prisoner claims, speak with staff involved to obtain an understanding of the issue at hand, and then render a final appealable decision. In theory this would work just fine, but in practice rarely happens and I’ll discuss this in detail in a moment.
The assaulted EMCF prisoner would certainly have run into an unfavorable decision by the IIS as there was a concerted coverup by superiors at her facility. This prisoner then had one last opportunity to seek resolution through the grievance process, and that was to ‘appeal’ the IIS’s decision, appealing directly to the ‘Chief Inspector’ of the NJDOC. This individual does not reside at the facility and is a true independent third party. The Chief Inspector reviews the claims and resolutions so far in the process, and does so by calling and talking to the staff at the facility. The Chief Inspector then rules on the previous decision of the IIS either affirming the previous decision of the IIS or striking it down and instituting a different resolution. The Chief Inspector’s decisions are final in the grievance process.
While it’s true that the Chief Inspector’s decision is internally final within the department of corrections, it does not prevent prisoners from seeking justice from outside law enforcement agencies or in cases of property losses, through the courts.
The Conflicts Of Interest In The Grievance Process
The grievance process, good when professionally addressed, is embodied with numerous conflicts of interest. For example, the IIS is a staffer appointed by the warden. This individual works at the institution and must render decisions that, in theory, may require ruling against one’s peers. This certainly would have been the case in the EMCF prisoner assault. As media has reported, staff at the facility engaged in a concerted cover up. The EMCF incident is an extreme example (assault and cover up) that failed to be kept hidden. It’s my personal experience and understanding that this conduct of deflection and coordinated cover against prisoners who faithfully bring forth grieved issues is pervasive, to lesser degrees, within the nation’s prisons.
Further, the IIS reports to the warden and by this very nature there is incentive to shield the warden from the reality of staff conduct. Wardens seldom know the true depth of staff misconduct because subordinates have incentive to underreport. To report that there is inappropriate activity under their watch is to self-incriminate one’s overwatch and leadership.
Additional conflict arises when an institution is accredited by one of the national correctional organizations such as the American Correctional Association (ACA). Accredited institutions are required to make available for inspection the history of grievance filings during annual or biannual audits. Ongoing accreditation is predicated upon an institution adhering to departmental policy and the guidelines of the accrediting organization. This includes showing that staff maintain operational professionalism. It’s not possible to show this if in fact true and honest claims of inappropriate conduct are being reported by prisoners through the grievance procedure, unless of course, the IIS rules in favor of the unprofessional staffer, intentionally covering for one’s peers.
In other words, there is incentive for the IIS to handle a grievance in the same manner as the supervisor had with whom the prisoner initially filed her informal complaint (step 1 in the process) to not expose the misconduct of one’s peers. Additional incentives are: to not expose the institution during audit inspections and to shield the warden from the conduct of underlings.
Lastly, and this is very, very important for it is a problem at every institution. Staff views and interactions toward prisoners tend to split between two groups of thinking and influence how staff interact with prisoners:
(View 1) Prisoners should be assisted in assisting themselves in positive ways while they are incarcerated in order to guide them toward rehabilitation. Interactions between staff and prisoners should be civil, professional, firm and courteous, and should encourage proper behavior. Proper behavior should be rewarded when possible and improper behavior punished when necessary.
(View 2) Prisoners should be resisted at every turn. The notion of rehabilitation is a waste of time and money. They should not be given privileges, nor should they be treated with dignity or professionalism. Prisoners should not the trusted. Punishment should be front and center, and if this is an issue then they shouldn’t have come to prison.
A grievance procedure must be able to account for the opposing views staff hold toward prisoners.
A Proposed Solution
There already exists a model that preserves the integrity of process for investigating and resolving the type of issues that prisoners raise in the grievance process. This model exists in the military in the form of the Office of the Inspector General.
In the Army there is an Inspector General (IG). Beneath the IG are other IGs at every command in the same fashion as there are IIS’s at each prison. The IG of the Army appoints these IGs, and tasks them to handle the investigations that personnel bring to light. They then report their findings to the IG of the Army, who in turn reports to the Chief of Staff.
I propose that a similar model should be followed and created. That the creation of an office of the Chief Inspector of Correctional Operations (CICO) be formed as part of the central operations of the department of corrections, and as a central point of oversight for grievances filed by prisoners through the grievance process and;
That the CICO be tasked with appointing an Inspector of Correctional Operations (ICO) for each correctional institution within the state;
That the ICO be independent and not part of the institution’s staff roster or unions representing staff at the institution;
That the ICO have broad investigative powers to investigate and resolve issues put forth in grievances by prisoners; able to question staff and prisoners and to conduct investigations unfettered from the influence of third parties at the institution;
That the ICO have the ability to report interference to the CICO and;
That the ICO produce a summary report for each grievance resolution with copies forwarded to the offices of the warden and the CICO. Summaries would remain on file for a period of 7 years and;
That the CICO produce a quarterly report of the general findings and operations of all ICOs, which would then be submitted to the Director of Prisons.
If the department of corrections adopted this model, it would ensure operational integrity and openness that currently does not exist. It would address the conflicts of interest that exist within the current model of the grievance procedure, and it would hold staff accountable to the integrity of the profession. As it stands, wardens and correctional directors are mostly unaware of the issues covered here for the current structure of the grievance procedure enables this to be so.
Please share this post with others. I write this blog to give prisoners a voice and to break stereotypes that ultimately influence and shape the correctional narrative.
Read more from this blog in the book titled “Behind The Wall: A Prisoner’s Journal” by Christopher Monihan (2021). Amazon. Available in paperback and ebook.
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