By Beryl Lipton, MuckRock
Part 1 - Taking a look inside the black hole of prisoner grievances, and the lessons learned too late
During the years it was operated by the private Management and Training Corporation, the “property” grievance was the most common type filed at Arizona State Prison - Kingman.
Over a third of the 3500-person facility’s 1600 grievances fell into this category, followed by healthcare (~450) and staff (~80) complaints; many more “Category 16” complaints would arrive after a “disturbance” last July. Case #M59-110-0**, initially filed three years ago this week, was among the seemingly more benign complaints filed in the time before riots shook the prison and management was changed. The issue was a missing pair of shoes.
The V4orce Nitrus men’s running shoe was one of four sneaker choices inmates had inside. According to Inmate 2*3*9*, they were the cheapest and the best looking option; he’d already had one pair and in late May 2013, while he grabbed some strawberry cheese danish ($0.98) and another antishank toothbrush ($0.04), he ordered a new set ($17.98), which he’d be able to pick up from the property office in a week.
Public and private prisons across America receive thousands and thousands of grievances, formal and informal, each year. And it’s only once all administrative grievance procedures have finally been exhausted that an inmate can take a case to court, a measure implemented in the mid-nineties via the Prison Litigation Reform Act, effectively meant to keep their complaints getting too much play.
When it went into effect, prisoner suits made up 15% of all federal court filings, and their high rate of dismissal seemed an indication of their lack of legitimacy. Imagine it as something akin to the worst attitudes taken toward FOIA and public records requests: to stem the tide another bureaucratic hurdle is added with public interest dismissed on technical grounds.
Add it to the list of ways the inmate in the United States is a sort of sub-American, currently the largest category of second-tier citizen, barred from voting, publishing, and the prohibition of slavery. They’re squeezed financially for everything from food to phone calls by everyone from the major corporations trading on Wall Street to the very neighbors that share their communities. Their failures in court before the PLRA, and even now, are often to do with a lack of legal-level literacy or representation, rather than common sense merits. Nonetheless, inmates must now take their grievances to the formal end of the internal system before they can take their problems elsewhere.
Inmate 2*3*9*, for one, never received his sneakers.
According to the back-and-forth included in a batch of formal grievances obtained via public records request, his scheduled pick-up time of 9 a.m. on May 30, 2015 came and went without him, because he was at work at “Wheels of the World,” an inmate work program.
“Property doesn’t make exceptions to pick it up,” he wrote in one appeal, “you get your property at the hours property is open.”
And, ultimately, after multiple appeals, the grievance was denied.
Prisoners and their plights have been punchlines far longer than popular talking points. The seriousness of conditions as a whole can go missing in the disconnect between everyday issues like shoes and more violent problems. When Senator Robert Dole introduced the PLRA, he relied on the laugh factor to prod people to support it.
As Chief Justice William Rehnquist has pointed out, prisoners will now “litigate at the drop of a hat,” simply because they have little to lose and everything to gain. Prisoners have filed lawsuits claiming such grievances as insufficient storage locker space, being prohibited from attending a wedding anniversary party, and yes, being served creamy peanut butter instead of the chunky variety they had ordered. - Bob Dole, May 25, 1995
Meanwhile states were passing laws that would contribute to the larger-than-ever population we have now.
The popular dismissal of the peanut butter incident overshadowed opposition to the bill; Senator Edward Kennedy for one called the bill “patently unconstitutional.” It was cosponsored by an Arizona senator whose appreciation for the accuracy of estimates has since been called into question. The very fact that sometimes their complaints are legitimate and en masse can help point to larger problems within the facility had little room in a legal system burdened by its own inefficiency.
As Inmate 2*3*9* stated in his appeals, and maintains until this day, he never received those sneakers. The inventory form the decision relied upon, he claims, was signed by someone else, forged, maybe, by another inmate, and the sneakers they said were found during a cell search of his room on November 1 were, according to him, his older pair.
None of it much mattered after the request was denied, and his story remains unchanged. “I did complain about a pair of shoes,” he says. “I never got them.” Since he was released at the end of last year, he’s taking it a day at a time, he says. The missing prison shoes are a thing of the past, a future with children and his girlfriend occupying his present. Still, not every grievance has an all’s-well-that-ends-well finish, not even for him, when there was disgruntlement throughout the facility. He was watching television and waiting for permission to call home when the riots at Kingman began.
Prison riots are the most extreme expression of communal displeasure the incarcerated can really muster, and at ASP - Kingman, employees later expressed no surprise at the tension that erupted in early July 2015. In addition to the injuries sustained by both inmates and employees, the total costs included the need to move over a thousand inmates from the near-destroyed units, the deployment and destruction wrought by tactical units called in to quell the disorder, and the dissolution of the MTC contract in favor of new management under GEO Group. One of the guards involved was even moved to take his own life.
From hawk-eyed hindsight, maybe we can say that the signs were there all along, in things like the common chance your packages will never arrive. But if that’s the case, why don’t we see them beforehand?
Lawsuits have dropped in the years since PLRA was enacted, indicating that it’s been successful at stymieing those many complaints. It’s three strikes provision, barring court filing fee waivers for inmates who have had three previously-dismissed cases, is up for debate soon.
That being the case, inmates must go through their facility’s internal grievance procedures, which can be the sort of paperwork knot that we’ve come to expect from our government bureaucracy. Each state - except for Alabama - currently has some standard operating procedures by which inmates can submit grievances. This typically includes a series of formal and informal procedures and appeal steps.
Just as it can be frustrating to get a grievance submitted, for journalists and researchers on the outside, access to a meaningful understanding of prison complaints is also a challenge. With so many complaints kept in so many different files, access to copies is quickly cost prohibitive, even if one can narrow the search to a particular subset. By policy, most grievances are handled internally, at the most local, informal level, if possible, with a formal grievance and appeals process available, meaning that in many cases, accountability is conducted and correlated by the accused parties themselves.
This has its roots in the practical - how many resources can be spared to investigate - but becomes more problematic when applied to private prisons, like Kingman, where incentives do more to encourage grievance dismissal than deterrence. In the majority of states hosting private prisons, grievances are, by policy, handled internally as they are in Arizona.
That leaves a lot up to the discretion of the facility, which, given that the annual inspection only includes two points about inmate grievances, assumes a lot about private prison scruples.
When there’s no real way to effectively grieve about the grievance process, a protest of sorts can seem like the only chance to affect change on the situation in a liveable amount of time. Even cases that successfully find their way into the courts - such as Brown v. Plata, which deemed unconstitutional the conditions created by California’s overcrowded system - can take decades to run their course. From outside, it becomes obvious that the walk in a prisoner’s shoes is not so simple when it’s much easier to just take them.
Part 2 -What do we get to know about how bad prisoners think they have it?
On July 1, 2015, inspection reports suggested maybe-even-better-than-usual business at ASP-Kingman. The Hualapai Unit was operating at “Excellent” levels in the categories of “Staff Appearance,” “Staff Morale,” and “Professional Behavior”; “Inmate Morale” was consistently labeled as “Adequate.”
And yet the next day came the first in a series of back-up calls made to the Mohave County Sheriff’s Office.
By July 4, Independence Day 2015, inmate unrest in the Cerbat and Hualapai Units had grown to riot levels, ultimately requiring deployment of special tactical units. The inspection reports had pointed to other areas where the prison was consistently noncompliant, particularly in the areas of access to medical care, and noted multiple vacant positions impossible to fill with a short staff and available extras already working overtime, an echo of the staffing insufficiencies that permitted the dramatic escape of two inmates in 2010.
But despite the regular inspections and the glimpses of frustration that found their way via inmate grievances to the administration, the prison and DOC officials were unprepared for the outburst and destruction of the facility, which required the relocation of most of the units’ inmates.
Nearly every U.S. state Department of Corrections has implemented its own grievance procedures - for the most part, these apply in the same way to the prisons, both public and private, being operated under the jurisdiction of that DOC. The hope of the majority of these is to handle inmate problems at the lowest level possible, within the unit or the prison first, before moving the complaint further up the line; sexual assault issues are allowed a more direct process care of the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA), and other types of complaints may have their own specific grievance or appeal procedures.
But, for the most part, grievances start as close to the unit as possible, and this can present a problematic state of affairs at privately-operated prisons, where successful grievances can suggest inadequacies worthy of criticism and retributions, financial and otherwise.
There are typically two levels of grievance - informal and formal - and an inmate must go through the full process before they can turn to judicial options. Failure to follow time deadlines or other parameters can result in an automatic dismissal.
For Inmate 2*3*9*, this meant first an informal complaint on Form 802-11.
The informal response stating that his shoes had been found and they’d be sent over was returned on Form 802-12(e).
Then began the formal process. He immediately filed a formal grievance, Form 802-1, restating his complaint.
About six weeks later, he received a confusing response, stating that both reimbursement would not be recommended and that his request had been approved.
He followed up with a formal appeal, Form 802-3P, on September 3, 2013, which was denied on the eighteenth by the DOC’s Deputy Bureau Administrator.
His next step was to appeal Warden Rider’s decision to the Director of the DOC, which was submitted on October 10. On November 5, the process was closed with a letter signed by Charles Ryan stating that no further action would be taken.
One can see the appeal of keeping complaints close to home. By the time the complaint had gotten out of the unit and to the warden, prison officials needed to rely upon the paper trail available - the property receipt - which was signed, though, the inmate maintains, not by him. And while one can imagine the built-in frustration of the process altogether, it’s also hard to imagine a more straightforward way.
What can be left to be desired is a better way of actually looking at, considering, and correlating those complaints.
The grievance from Inmate 2*3*9* was provided by the Arizona DOC in response to a request for two-months worth of formal grievances.
Seven were returned, a clear fraction of total grievances that were submitted to the facility, most of which never created an initial paper trail, and the inmate’s informal submission was only included as part of the file.
With summer upon us, it’s important to consider that the riots always seem, in retrospect, to be expected. Just last year it was ASP-Kingman, Willacy County Correctional Institution, Cimarron Correctional Facility. In none of these cases were the displeasures of inmates unknown. So why didn’t the grievance process, meant as an outlet for such tension, treat some of the problems?
This inmate’s grievances were only a sliver of the total grievances that are submitted each year; most, it seems, don’t receive appeals, a common characteristic across the board. And for the interested, there are common barriers to access at both public and private prisons.
For example, the practice of keeping the only copies of informal grievances in inmate files makes collection and reproduction at Kingman, like at other prisons, informal grievances are kept in individual files. After the riot, inmates were moved to other prisons, and the process of searching for all of the files would require tracking down everyone who was moved out, a nearly impossible use of time and resources, already a burdensome task even if all inmates who had made a complaint were within a prison.
Simply asking the DOC for copies of grievances, particularly from private prisons, is typically unsuccessful, because they’re handled internally, and that’s the case in most places.
A request to the New Mexico Department of Corrections resulted in a check being sent to the lawyers for Corrections Corporation of America and pages of redactions.
Other options do exist, however, for finding out what’s going on. For one, grievances logs can give you a sense of scale when it comes to total numbers across categories. In Arizona, grievance logs are kept by month per unit, a sort of index of what came through formally. Alternatively, one can look at a particular subset: only formal complaints or only cases that have been appealed, for example.
But what consistently exists is the sense that accountability measures are implemented with the nominal purpose of keeping things copacetic. A prison rebrand doesn’t necessarily mean a whole new set of staff or effective policies.
Which is why attention on the local level is important to keeping prisons across the country accountable. And a good place to start would be listening to the ones inside.
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