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Naming Problems & Filing Grievances in CA Prisons, Calavita & Jenness, 2013

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Inside the Pyramid of Disputes:
Naming Problems and Filing Grievances
in California Prisons
Kitty Calavita, University of California, Irvine
Valerie Jenness, University of California, Irvine
Previous literature on disputing and legal mobilization suggests that stigmatized, self-blaming, and/or vulnerable
populations often face insurmountable barriers to naming a situation as injurious and claiming redress. Contrary
to what one would expect from this literature, prisoners in the United States—among the most stigmatized and
vulnerable of populations—file tens of thousands of grievances annually. To explore this apparent paradox, we
draw on an unprecedented data set comprised of interviews with a random sample of 120 men in three California
prisons. Our data reveal that these prisoners are willing and able to name problems, and most of them have filed at
least one grievance. While some expressed self-blame and most said there was retaliation for filing a grievance, the
majority overcame these impediments to filing. We argue that the context of prison—a total institution in which law
is a hypervisible force—enhances this form of legal mobilization by prisoners, trumping the social and psychological
factors that the context otherwise produces and that in other populations tamp down claims making. The pattern of
these prisoners’ claims, however, reveals that they are by no means immune to the countervailing pressures. While
staff disrespect was named frequently as a problem in prison, grievances against staff were relatively rare. In concluding, we note that the U.S. Supreme Court recently found California prisons violate the Eighth Amendment’s ban on
cruel and unusual punishment, a finding that reveals the inadequacy of the inmate appeals system despite prisoners’
repeated efforts to hold the state accountable. Keywords: prisons; inmate appeals; grievances; dispute resolution; legal

“The COs [correctional officers] tend to think we’re not human. We’re not people, we’re just criminals.”
– California prisoner, interview, August 2009
“It’s about standing up for yourself and your rights. You know that sometimes you just gotta do that.”
– California prisoner, interview, July 2009
“They decide. You just complain.”

– California prisoner, interview, July 2009

In 2006, a California prisoner lodged a grievance with the state’s Department of Corrections
and Rehabilitation (CDCR), citing temperatures of 114 degrees in the overcrowded concrete cells
of his desert prison. The lack of ventilation was exacerbated by metal on the roof, he said, adding
that even the prison dog kennels were air-conditioned. The same year, a bedridden paraplegic
This research was funded by the Law and Social Science Program and the Sociology Program, National Science Foundation (SES-0849731). The authors want to express appreciation to the California prisoners who agreed to share their experiences. The authors would also like to thank the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation for granting
permission to conduct this research and for providing access to prisoners, CDCR staff, and official documents. Finally, this
article benefitted from the capable research assistance and helpful comments provided by Ashley Demyan, Danny Gascon,
Sonya Goshe, Krithika Santhanam, Lori Sexton, Sarah Smith, Jennifer Sumner, Sylvia Valenzuela, Anjuli Catherine Verma,
and Samantha Yarman-Patterson. Lori Sexton and Sarah Smith in particular played a central role in this research. Direct
correspondence to: Kitty Calavita, Department of Criminology, Law and Society, University of California, Irvine, 2340 Social
Ecology II, Irvine, California 92697–7080. E-mail:
Social Problems, Vol. 60, Issue 1, pp. 50–80, ISSN 0037-7791, electronic ISSN 1533-8533. © 2013 by Society for the Study of
Social Problems, Inc. All rights reserved. Please direct all requests for permission to photocopy or reproduce article content
through the University of California Press’s Rights and Permissions website at
DOI: 10.1525/sp.2013.11172.

Inside the Pyramid of Disputes

prisoner filed a grievance against the CDCR for the deficient care he was receiving, and attached
photographs of the dozens of open bedsores on his back.
The administrative grievance system1 is prisoners’ main internal mechanism for contesting
the conditions of their confinement, and federal law requires exhaustion of these procedures
before filing a lawsuit. In California, the grievance process includes three levels of formal review.
Despite the arduous process and the odds against a prisoner prevailing, in California tens of thousands of inmates file such grievances annually. Many are dramatic, such as those described above,
and others are arguably more mundane.
These grievances provide a rare glimpse behind the scenes of daily prison life. On the forms
they are required to fill out, appellants describe medical care, staff conduct, cafeterias and food,
physical safety, cell assignments, disciplinary action, visitation procedures, transfers, and missing
property. Collectively, they provide a sense of the ordinary punctuated by the exceptional that
makes up prison life. On another level, however, the grievance system can be seen as an internal
disputing mechanism, albeit one that is heavily asymmetrical in design and outcome, and that
over time has not significantly improved the conditions recently found in Brown v. Plata (563 U.S.
[2011]) to be cruel and unusual.
An extensive scholarship examines the processes through which people come to recognize
a circumstance they confront as a problem, assign responsibility or blame for that circumstance,
and lodge a grievance or mobilize action over it (Albiston 1999, 2005; Blackstone, Uggen, and
McLaughlin 2009; Earl 2009; Edelman and Cahill 1998; Edelman, Erlanger, and Lande 1993;
Edelman, Uggen, and Erlanger 1999; Emerson and Messinger 1977; Felstiner, Abel, and Sarat
1980–81; Hendley 2010; Hoffmann 2001, 2003, 2005; Marshall 2003; Morrill et al. 2010; Nielsen
2004). Among the strengths of this scholarly tradition is that it pays close attention to the importance of distinct sociocultural locations. A key finding is that the ability or willingness of people
to identify a problem, blame someone for it, and mobilize action or launch a dispute is socially
patterned, with vulnerable, stigmatized, and/or self-blaming populations facing daunting
Given this consistent finding in the literature, the extensive use of the administrative grievance process by prisoners—among the most vulnerable and stigmatized of populations—is at first
glance paradoxical. This article unpacks this apparent paradox. It is derived from our larger study of
the California inmate appeals system, for which we collected several kinds of data: face-to-face
interviews with a random sample of 120 prisoners in three men’s prisons in California; official
CDCR data on these prisoners from the Offender Based Information System (OBIS); a separate
sample of 459 written grievances filed by California prisoners in 2005–2006; face-to-face interviews with 23 key CDCR personnel, including grievance examiners; and official data on inmate
grievances. Here, we draw primarily on the prisoner interview data, although our other data sources provide us with context and we will reference them where relevant.
Almost three-quarters of the prisoners we interviewed have filed a grievance at some point in
their incarceration history, with many filing multiple times. Some of these men express self-blame
for their incarceration, and most of them report that corrections officials retaliate against those
who file grievances. We explore here the parameters of prisoners’ “naming, blaming, and claiming” (Felstiner et al. 1980–81) despite powerful internal and external obstacles to doing so. Clearly,
prisoners confront a plethora of conditions that are ripe for contestation, and this must be part
of any explanation for why so many of them file grievances. But, as decades of literature on disputing and legal mobilization have documented, the presence of grievable problems—even serious ones—is not in itself sufficient to explain the launching of a grievance, particularly in a
context of vulnerability, self-blame, and stigma.
Justice Stewart once said, “What for a private citizen would be a dispute with his landlord,
with his employer, with his tailor, with his neighbor, or with his banker becomes, for the prisoner,

1. Throughout this article we use the terms “grievances” and “appeals” interchangeably as does the correctional system.




a dispute with the State” (Preiser v. Rodriguez, 411 U.S. 475 [1973]). He was implicitly noting that
prisoners inhabit what Erving Goffman (1961) called a total institution, where virtually all of
one’s daily activities are organized and overseen by the authorities. Goffman was writing of life
inside a mental hospital when he coined this term, but he applied it to other inmates as well, as
did Donald Cressey (1961), Michel Foucault (1977), and others who have described prison as the
prototypical total institution.
We argue here that in addition to being a total institution, prison is above all a place of law.
Surrounded by guntowers and armed guards, with passage from one part of the facility to another
governed by “ducats,”2 and with everyday practices such as disciplinary actions referred to colloquially by their legal form numbers (in California, “115s” and “128s”), prison is what you might
call an “uncommon place of law” (Ewick and Silbey 1998). In contrast to the pervasive yet submerged and subtextual quality of law in everyday life, there is nothing subtextual about law in
prison. Prisoners’ willingness and ability to name problems and file grievances must be seen within
this context of prison not only as a total institution but as a conspicuously legal one where explicit
rules govern every aspect of behavior. As we will see, this legal-institutional context enhances
prisoners’ mobilization of law, in some cases overriding the very stigma and vulnerability that the
context otherwise produces.
While recognizing the conspicuous nature of law in prison helps make sense of prisoners’
legal mobilization in the form of filing a grievance, a close look at what these men told us in interviews and at the pattern of their grievance filings reveals that they are by no means immune to
the internal and external hurdles they confront. As revealed in this article, the inmates in our
sample who blame themselves for their imprisonment are less likely to have filed a grievance than
those who do not express self-blame. Further, while most of these men have filed a grievance of
some kind, relatively few have filed a complaint against staff despite the frequency with which
staff disrespect and misconduct came up in our interviews as problematic. Given the common
refrain we heard that grievances against staff are particularly likely to result in serious reprisals,
it is perhaps not surprising that they often fall out of the “pyramid of disputes” (Felstiner et al.
1980–81; see also, Michelson 2007).
The article is divided into two substantive parts. The first part addresses the problems and
concerns articulated by these prisoners. This naming process constitutes the rarely examined
front-end of disputes and gives us a glimpse of life behind bars and prisoners’ perceptions of their
problematic conditions as the context within which formal claims may ultimately be launched.
Previous literature on California prisons has singled out gangs, race relations, and the havoc they
wreak for inmate interaction, as the focal concerns of prisoners (Hunt et al. 1993). While some of the
prisoners we interviewed talked about these concerns, the issues they talked about most often—
decent living conditions, medical care, respect, and property—reflect more universal needs. In addition to delineating the problems reported by these inmates, we examine in this section their levels of
self-blame for incarceration and the lack of relationship between expressing self-blame and telling us
of problems.
In part two, we examine the frequency of grievance filing among these men and the potential
obstacles to filing a grievance, such as anticipated retaliation and self-blame. It is here that we
investigate the possibility that the law-centric quality of prison—in which formal rules explicitly
shape all aspects of life—has important repercussions for prisoners’ willingness to perceive and act
on institutional violations of those rules. Here too we examine in detail the pattern of grievances
and what this pattern reveals about the limits of prisoners’ willingness and ability to make certain
kinds of claims.
Before presenting these findings in more detail, the following section briefly locates our study
within the context of previous research and theorizing.

2. A ducat is a written permission form authorizing a prisoner to move around the prison for a particular appointment or
responsibility, such as a work assignment or medical appointment.

Inside the Pyramid of Disputes

Theoretical Considerations
Several bodies of scholarship and theoretical approaches are relevant to this study. Particularly pertinent are the literatures on disputing and legal mobilization (Bumiller 1987; Edelman
et al. 1999; Felstiner et al. 1980–81; Hoffmann 2003; Michelson 2007; Morrill et al. 2010), legal
consciousness (Ewick and Silbey 1998; Marshall 2003; Merry 1979, 1990; Nielsen 2004), and interpersonal “troubles” (Emerson 2010; Emerson and Messinger 1977). As Jennifer Earl (2009)
points out, these literatures have often been isolated into subfields despite their common intellectual goal of exploring how conflicts and disputes emerge and take shape and how social meaning
is constructed in the process.
It is a basic premise of the disputing literature that “trouble, problems, personal and social dislocation are everyday occurrences” (Felstiner et al. 1980–81:633), but for a dispute to emerge they
have to be perceived as injurious.3 Once an individual perceives and names a problem, it may climb
the “pyramid of disputes” (Felstiner et al. 1980–81; Michelson 2007), with someone being blamed
and in relatively rare cases claims being asserted. Studies of this “naming, blaming, claiming”
(Felstiner et al. 1980–81) process find that it depends on a wide range of social-psychological,
cultural, political, institutional, and structural factors (Coates and Penrod 1980–81; Felstiner et al.
1980–81; Gleeson 2010; Hoffmann 2003; Michelson 2007; Morrill et al. 2010).
Among the factors most often discussed as inhibiting both naming and claiming is self-blame.
Attribution theory posits that those who blame themselves for a circumstance or event are less
likely to identify the situation as injurious, much less feel entitled to a remedy (Coates and Penrod
1980–81; Felstiner et al. 1980–81; Hendley 2010). Studies reveal that self-blame is structurally patterned such that those with fewer resources and/or those in vulnerable social locations are predisposed to both self-blame and disentitlement (Hoffmann 2003; Michelson 2007; Morrill et al. 2010).
Further, some people may fear that launching a claim will stigmatize them as troublemakers
or make them the target of retaliation (Bumiller 1987; Michelson 2007; Miller and Sarat 1980–81).
As with self-blame, the anticipated repercussions of complaining are patterned by social location,
with those in less powerful social positions most susceptible to fears of retaliation (Kanter 1979;
Miller and Sarat 1980–81:541; Michelson 2007; Morrill et al. 2010). For example, in their study of
legal mobilization among youths, Calvin Morrill and his colleagues (2010) found that African
American youths had a higher rate of perceived rights violations than white youths, but were no
more likely to have taken action, suggesting that African Americans “lumped it” more often than
The effect of power and vulnerability on the ability and willingness to launch claims is also
documented in studies of their dynamics in the workplace. For example, Kristin Bumiller’s
(1987) African American respondents said they were reluctant to file a discrimination complaint
against their employer because they feared retaliation, and some tried to deflect blame from the
employer (he didn’t really mean to be unfair) or otherwise rationalize the problem away (it’s not
that big a deal). Other research that examines the effect of gender in workplace disputes confirms
the importance of such power asymmetries, as women face not only the usual imbalance of power
between worker and employer, but gender-based inequalities as well; as a result, they confront
greater subjective and objective barriers to making claims than their male counterparts (Calhoun
and Smith 1999; Fletcher 1999; Gwartney-Gibbs and Lach 1992, 1994; Hoffmann 2005; Lind,
Huo, and Tyler 1994).
Studies of legal consciousness investigate how ordinary people understand and perceive law
and act on those perceptions in both legal and extralegal arenas (Ewick and Silbey 1998; Marshall
2003; Merry 1979, 1990; Nielsen 2004). This literature complicates the picture presented above by
revealing that disempowered people across the world and in settings as varied as welfare offices,
3. This “naming” that constitutes the front end of disputes has been relatively understudied in part because it is difficult
to study that which is not identified as injurious (cf. Emerson 2008, 2010)—a challenge that is arguably mitigated in the prison
context where, by most objective measures, potential problems abound.




the workplace, housing projects, and the realm of marriage and the family, actively engage law as
a tool of resistance and a “weapon of the weak” (Cowan 2004; Lazarus-Black and Hirsch 1994;
Lovell 2006; Sarat 1990; Scott 1985; White 1990). Patricia Ewick and Susan Silbey (1998) point out
that while attitudes about law and legal practices are replete with contingencies and contradictions,
they are nonetheless rooted in social and cultural structures, institutions, and ideologies. To affirm
complexity, in other words, does not negate the social pattern. Thus, John Gilliom (2001) summarizes the stacked deck against the marginalized and socially disempowered: “[T]he institutional,
structural, and social pressures push against the assertion of rights” (p. 91).
Several scholars note that cultural forces make Americans “slow to perceive injury” (Felstiner
et al. 1980–81:652) because of a “cult of competence” that discourages them from seeing themselves as victims of mistreatment. In her study of American blacks’ perceptions of and responses
to racial discrimination, Bumiller (1987, 1988) found an “ethic of survival,” one dimension of
which is a denial of injury in the interest of preserving self-respect. Not only may claiming the status of victim have negative implications for self-image, but endurance is positively valued. Several
of Bumiller’s (1987) respondents expressed pride in their ability to, as one man put it, “mak[e] it
through the rain” and “weather the storm” (pp. 431, 432). This is particularly pronounced in the
context of prisons for men—institutions defined by constructions of masculinity anchored in selfsufficiency and where “be tough and strong” is a common refrain articulated by prisoners.
In addition to locating our study within this discussion, we draw on and contribute to what has
been called the “micropolitics of trouble,” a field most closely identified with the work of Robert
Emerson (Emerson 2008, 2010; Emerson and Messinger 1977). Among the strengths of this sociological work is its ethnographic quality, with in-depth explorations of the life course of interpersonal conflicts. Perhaps because of its “natural history” methodology (Emerson and Messinger
1977:121), the sociology of trouble captures the front end of disputes—the moment when “trouble” is first perceived, thus filling in a large gap in the disputing literature.
Emerson and Sheldon Messinger (1977:121) start from the premise that all social environments are replete with “ambiguous difficulties” and that some of these difficulties are felt as “a
vague sense of ‘something wrong’—some ‘problem’ or ‘trouble’.” A wide range of responses may
ensue: “[A] person may come to recognize the existence of . . . problems, and yet never do anything in response. It may be that . . . the person decides it is really no problem after all . . .; or that
there . . . is nothing that can be done . . . But often the recognition that something is wrong coincides with a weighing of remedies. . .” (p. 122). Recognizing this variation in responses, their analytic focus is on what becomes identifiable as trouble and what explains how people orient to and
respond to trouble.
In this article, we examine the identification and processing of “trouble” within the institutional context of prison, and the myriad ways this social location shapes inmates’ perceptions of
and handling of trouble. Many insights from the disputing and legal consciousness literatures are
confirmed here, particularly those relating to the propensity of stigmatized and vulnerable populations to self-blame, and to the anticipated practical consequences of filing complaints. Contrary
to much previous literature, however, these prisoners are nonetheless willing and able to name
multiple problems, and the vast majority have filed grievances. We argue here that prison is an
“uncommon place of law” (Ewick and Silbey 1998) in which the accoutrements of law are explicit
and ubiquitous, and that this institutional feature may offset the social and psychological factors
that in other contexts inhibit naming and claiming. Nonetheless, as we will see from the pattern
of their claims, these prisoners are not immune to the dramatic vulnerabilities of their institutional
location, once again affirming the “pressures [that] push against the assertion of rights” (Gilliom
2001:91) and other forms of claims making.
Finally, our focus on prison life builds on a long tradition of prison sociology. This sociology
has traditionally emphasized the question of order and disorder behind prison walls (Clemmer
1940; Sparks and Bottoms 1995; Sykes 1958; Useem and Kimball 1989), and more recently
has explored the related issue of prisoners’ modes of adaptation and/or resistance (Bosworth
1999; Carrabine 2005; Crewe 2005, 2007; Kruttschnitt and Gartner 2005; Milovanovic and

Inside the Pyramid of Disputes

Thomas 1989; Thomas 1988). Candace Kruttschnitt and Rosemary Gartner’s (2005) comparative
study of two women’s prisons in California is potentially of particular relevance to this project.
They find that microinstitutional trajectories of prisons, which correlate with the historical
moment in which a prison opened, the physical design of a prison, the mission of the prison, and
other institutional factors, shape the types of experiences people have while incarcerated.
Nonetheless, and more relevant to this article, they find that there are enduring similarities that
transcend local distinctions. Their work reveals that the shared structural facts of carceral life—
most notably the absence of freedom and extreme regimentation—generate differences in magnitude, not in kind.4 As Gartner and Kruttschnitt (2004) conclude, “while discourses, practices, and
people come and go, important realities of imprisonment persist” (p. 299).
Prison sociology does not explicitly engage the themes of disputing, nor does it interrogate
how prisoners interpret their troubles in prison, but these bodies of research have a number of
intellectual goals in common. At the most general level, they are all concerned with people’s subjective and objective response to problems, particularly in social environments of unequal distributions of power and varying forms of social inequality. Breaking new ground, this article sits
squarely at the intersection of these literatures, as we explore the naming of problems and claiming of remedies in one of the most heavily stigmatized, disempowering, and legally regulated
institutional contexts of contemporary American society.

Research Access, the CDCR, and Inmate Appeals
The Challenges of In-Prison Research
Despite the unprecedented growth of the incarcerated population in the United States since
the early 1970s, there has been a decline in scholarly attention to life inside prison walls (Crewe
2007; Goodman 2008; Simon 2000; Wacquant 2002). In contrast to the era in which Donald
Clemmer (1940) and Gresham Sykes (1958) did their work, there has been a paucity of in-prison
research in the United States over the last several decades (Simon 2000; for notable exceptions,
see Fleisher and Krienert 2009; Irwin 2005; Jenness 2010; Jenness et al. 2010; and Rhodes
This dearth of in-prison research is certainly not due to a lack of scholarly interest or because
the topic has receded in importance. Rather, prison fieldwork is fraught with administrative,
bureaucratic, and legal obstacles (Arriola 2006; Jenness 2010; Jenness et al. 2010). To be blunt,
prisons are heavily regulated institutional arenas, and officials often do not welcome researchers
“poking around” (Arriola 2006:138). Further, prisoners are considered “special populations” in
the language of institutional review boards, making in-prison research all the more difficult.
Despite these obstacles, it is critically important to get “inside and around penal facilities” (Wacquant
2002:386–87) if we are to portray life inside prison walls and understand the meaning prisoners
attach to it.
We undertook this research fully cognizant of the potential challenges of access. One of the
authors of this article had developed a track record of research with the CDCR and had good
working relations with some key decision makers. Yet even in this best-case scenario, the bureaucratic process of securing research permission and getting prison access was fraught with delays,
speed bumps, and mind-numbing paperwork (including, at one point, “an application to submit
4. Relevant for the study reported in this article, Kruttschnitt and Gartner (2005) find that there may be more dissatisfaction in the Valley State Prison for Women (VSPW) than in the California Institution for Women (CIW), but that it is primarily a matter of degree. As Davison, Jenness, and Lynch (2011) note in their review of Kruttschnitt and Gartner’s book,
“[U]ltimately their research indicates that prisoners experience imprisonment similarly, and respond to it with little trust for
others—staff and fellow prisoners alike—then figure out ways to get by without getting drawn into trouble . . .” (p. 241).
5. Interesting in-prison research has been conducted in other countries, particularly the United Kingdom (see, for
example, Bosworth 1999; Carrabine 2005; Crewe 2005, 2007; Sparks 1994; Sparks and Bottoms 1995).




an application”). More than two years after we began—years that included multiple trips to secure
endorsements from prison wardens, the Inmate Appeals Branch, and the upper echelons of the
CDCR in Sacramento—we secured the coveted permission.
Parallel to this process of obtaining permission from the CDCR, we sought the necessary
approvals from the Institutional Review Board (IRB) at the University of California, Irvine, and
the California Committee for the Protection of Human Subjects (CPHS). The IRB review process
to obtain approval to study populations such as prisoners is particularly daunting. Presumably designed to add an important extra layer of protection when researchers propose to study a vulnerable population, form sometimes trumped substance in an IRB permission process that entailed
several rounds of miniscule changes and at least one administrative wild goose chase.6 Many
months after initiating the IRB and CPHS approval processes, our study was approved and our
research was finally underway.

The CDCR, the Prison Litigation Reform Act, and the Inmate Appeals Process
At the time of data collection, California was home to one of the largest correctional systems in
the Western world, surpassed only by the U.S. federal system. The CDCR is charged with running
33 prisons and at the time of this study housed approximately 160,000 people, all but about 12,000
of them in men’s prisons. In addition to its mammoth size, the CDCR is by many accounts a dysfunctional organization. The U.S. Supreme Court recently concluded that inadequate mental and
physical health care in California prisons due to overcrowding violates the Eighth Amendment’s
ban on cruel and unusual punishment and ordered California to reduce its prison population to
137.5 percent of design capacity within two years, translating into a reduction of approximately
30,000 prisoners (Brown v. Plata 2011). Reports by journalists, government agencies, and academics confirm that inadequate medical and mental health care as well as other deleterious conditions are common in California prisons (California Correctional Peace Officers’ Association 2010;
California Inspector General 2010; Corrections Independent Review Panel 2004; Petersilia 2008;
Piller 2010a, 2010b, 2010c; Plata v. Schwarzenegger, 603 F.3d. 1088 [2010]; Prison Law Office
2010). A wide range of special masters, independent review panels, and other experts reported
that in fiscal year 2003–2004 one inmate a week died in California due to inadequate medical care
(there could be a 700-prisoner backlog for a doctor’s appointment), and on average one California
prisoner a week committed suicide (Brown v. Plata 2011:5).
The Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA) requires prisoners who want to contest such conditions to exhaust internal administrative remedies before they file a lawsuit.7 Congress passed the
PLRA in 1996 to curb what it believed was an excessive number of prisoner lawsuits, at a time when
the prison population in the United States had skyrocketed. While the PLRA contains other important provisions—such as restraints on the ability of courts to intervene in prison management—the
relevant provision here is this requirement for prisoners to exhaust the administrative appeals
process offered by their state’s correctional system before gaining access to the courts (Belbot
2004; Schlanger 2003).8

6. See Feeley (2007) and Katz (2006, 2007) for incisive portrayals of IRB practices as censorship and their bureaucratic
mandates as overzealous, mindless, and impediments to basic research.
7. The exhaustion provision states: “No action shall be brought with respect to prison conditions under section 1983 of
this title, or any other Federal law, by a prisoner confined in any jail, prison, or other correctional facility until such administrative remedies as are available are exhausted” (42 U.S.C. § 1997e(a)).
8. Subsequent to the enactment of the PLRA, the rate of prisoner lawsuits fell substantially (Schlanger and Shay 2008;
U.S. District Courts various years). The number of prisoners’ federal civil rights lawsuits declined by 33 percent from 1995 to
1997, even as prison populations increased. By 2010, the per prisoner filing rate had fallen by more than 60 percent (from 26
federal cases for every thousand prisoners in 1995 to 11 per thousand in 2010)—a decline most experts attribute to the
exhaustion requirement as well as the new filing fees the PLRA imposed and the legislation’s ban on emotional damage
awards (Belbot 2004; Schlanger 2003; Schlanger and Shay 2008).

Inside the Pyramid of Disputes

In California, inmate grievance procedures are specified in Article 8, Title 15 (“Crime Prevention and Corrections”) of the California Code of Regulations.9 To file a grievance, prisoners are
required to complete an Inmate/Parolee Appeal Form—officially numbered and colloquially
referred to as a “602.” When we began this research, inmates had to attempt to resolve their grievances informally with the relevant staff as the first step in filing a 602. In some cases—such as an
allegation of staff misconduct, contestation by the inmate of a serious disciplinary violation, or an
inmate complaint about his/her classification—this informal step could be waived. If the informal
effort was unsuccessful, or if it had been bypassed, the 602 was subject to three potential levels of
formal review. The informal level of review was eliminated in 2011, but the subsequent three formal levels remain largely unchanged.
At the first formal level, the inmate’s narrative of his/her complaint and proposed remedy is
limited to one paragraph on the 602 form, plus a potential additional page, front and back; supporting documentation may be attached. The inmate forwards this to the inmate appeals coordinator (IAC) at the prison, a position commonly held by a CDCR correctional officer. The IAC is
charged with screening each grievance to determine if it is in compliance with CDCR regulations,
and returning to the appellant those that do not conform to strict requirements. Among the most
important of these requirements is that the 602 be filed within 15 days of the incident being contested. Other reasons for screening out a grievance include such things as “unclear appeal issue” or
“not within the jurisdiction of the department” (Section 3084.3, Title 15). If the reason for the
screen-out can be corrected (for example, the inmate did not submit the proper documentation),
the appeal can be revised and resubmitted. The IAC then usually forwards a grievance that is not
screened out to the correctional authority most relevant for the complaint (for example, the captain of the yard where the prisoner resides) for a first-level response. The response can take one of
three forms: granting the requested remedy in full, granting the requested remedy in part, or
denying the requested remedy. The official response and justification are entered onto the 602 form
beneath the inmate’s narrative. If dissatisfied with this outcome, the prisoner may explain his/her
dissatisfaction beneath the official’s response and submit the grievance for a second level of review,
conducted by the warden or his/her designee, such as the deputy warden. Once again, the grievance may be granted, partially granted, or denied. These responses too are entered onto the
602 form, directly beneath the inmate’s level-two narrative.
If the appeal is not fully granted at the second level, the prisoner may request a third-level
review by the CDCR director of adult institutions, who in turn delegates the review to the Office
of Inmate Appeals in Sacramento. There, each grievance is read and responded to by an examiner
who may or may not conduct further investigation. Such investigation may consist of telephone
calls to officials at the prison where the complaint originated or document retrieval, but rarely
involves a trip to the prison. The chief of inmate appeals then informs the appellant in writing of
the final decision, including verbiage making it clear the appellant has exhausted all internal
There are a few general exceptions to this process. After the CDCR medical system was put in
receivership in 2006, medical appeals were given their own track. A separate form, 602-HC
(Health Care), is used when the complaint involves medical, dental, or mental health care, and
specialized staff evaluate and respond to them at each level. Another exception involves allegations of staff misconduct. The procedure for these allegations is carefully constructed to preserve
the privacy of the implicated staff according to the California Peace Officers’ Bill of Rights and, as
we will see later, is shaped by the assumption that inmates often “manipulate or retaliate against
staff” (CDCR 2003:2).
Academics, correctional administrators, and activists alike have critiqued the PRLA.
Recognizing that it gives states total discretion over the number of levels of administrative

9. Section 3084.1 of Title 15 begins, “Any inmate or parolee under the department’s jurisdiction may appeal any
departmental decision, action, condition, or policy which they can demonstrate as having an adverse effect upon their welfare.”




review, the timelines, and the intricacy of forms and procedures, Margo Schlanger (2003)
writes, “Essentially, then, the sky’s the limit for the procedural complexity or difficulty of
the exhaustion requirement” (p. 1650). Jeanne Woodford, former acting secretary of the
CDCR, testified before Congress in 2008:
For those prison officials who fear the courts, the PLRA provides an incentive to make the grievance procedures more complicated than necessary . . . Grievances may be rejected because the prisoner could not
clearly articulate his complaint, or for a minor problem such as using handwriting that is too small.
I know of at least one state that will screen out appeals if they are not signed in blue ink and yet another
state that charges prisoners to file an appeal (Woodford 2008).

A report on the consequences of the PLRA by Human Rights Watch (2009) concurs: “Some
grievance systems include requirements that seem designed to discourage, rather than facilitate,
compliance [with the requirements] by prisoners” (p. 12). A federal judge has complained that
prison grievance systems can become “a series of stalling tactics, and dead-ends without resolution” (Campbell v. Chaves, 402 F. Supp. 2d 1101, 1106 n. 3 [2005]). And, Rebecca Bordt and
Michael Musheno (1988) reveal that even in a state where inmates were once represented on
grievance committees, the process was transformed into a “sophisticated social control mechanism
serving only bureaucratic interests” (p. 7). Consistent with these critiques, as we will see later in
more detail, grant rates for inmate grievances in California are low at every level of formal review.
We do not intend here to do an evaluation of California’s grievance process. Instead, this
overview of its multiple levels and requirements and its asymmetrical nature provides the background for our examination of prisoners’ experiences of their problems, their willingness to
launch grievances, and the pattern of those grievances in response to the pressures of the prison

Research Site, Data, and Methods of Analysis
Interviewing a random sample of all California prisoners would have necessitated accessing
33 prisons, which was logistically prohibitive. Instead, we secured random samples of 40 men
from each of three prisons that together approximate the characteristics of the larger CDCR male
population on several important dimensions. These three prisons are scattered around the state
and vary by age of facility, custody levels of the population, population size, number of grievances
that reach the third level of review, overcrowding levels, and violence rates. Green Valley Prison
(GVP)10 is a modern, maximum security institution with one of the highest rates of inmate grievances in the state. At the time of our interviews, it housed approximately 5,000 inmates in facilities designed for fewer than half that many people. In contrast, California Corrections Facility
(CCF) is a minimum and medium security prison, with a mid-range level of grievance filing. It too
is overcrowded, with over 6,500 inmates in facilities built for slightly fewer than 4,000. Finally,
Desert Valley Center (DVC) is a medium security prison with a relatively low rate of grievance
filings. With over 4,000 inmates in a facility built for little more than half that many, it too is severely
We chose these three prisons, which differ on a variety of dimensions, for multiple reasons.
First, doing so allowed us to move beyond the common practice of focusing research on a single
prison and engaging in convenience or snowball sampling within that prison. Second, these prisons
generate varying rates of grievance filings that make it to the highest level of review, as reported by
the CDCR. That is, they represent “high,” “medium,” and “low” rates of official grievance filing from
the point of view of the CDCR.11 Third, focusing on these three prisons allowed us to collect data on
10. The three prisons have been given pseudonyms.
11. The CDCR collects data on the grievances from each prison that make it to the third level of review, but there are no
available data that reveal the frequency with which grievances are filed and resolved at each prison at earlier levels of review.

Inside the Pyramid of Disputes

a diverse sample prisoners. In other words, data collection was not driven by a commitment to
compare and contrast findings across prisons; rather, it was driven by a recognition that collecting
data from prisoners in all 33 prisons was prohibitive and by a commitment to ensure a diverse sample that is relatively representative of the total California prison population.
Our protocols detailed procedures for obtaining informed consent, maintaining confidentiality, and responding to the kind of special circumstances that researchers encounter when conducting research in prison settings. Standard interviewing techniques and probing strategies, as
well as appropriate responses to unusual circumstances, were addressed in the research team
training. As much as possible, we aimed to reduce interviewer bias and ensure that all subjects
were approached to participate in the study in a similar fashion and were asked standard questions in similar ways.
Five interviewers—the authors of this article and three advanced graduate students (including
one fluent Spanish speaker)—were trained to comply with these protocols. Inmate interviewing
began in July 2009 and ended in late September 2009. During this time, members of the interview
team traveled to each of the three prisons and together completed 120 face-to-face interviews with
prisoners, including some who were confined to administrative segregation (“Ad Seg,” or what
prisoners call “the hole”).
We made every effort to ensure a random sample of prisoners and that officials did not interfere with random selection either on purpose or inadvertently. About ten days prior to the first
day of interviewing at a particular prison, we requested from the CDCR Office of Research the
official roster that identified every person housed in the prison by name and CDCR number. From
this roster, we used SPSS to randomly select 50 inmates to be solicited to serve as study participants, with the goal of interviewing the first 40 of them (the other 10 would serve as backup candidates for interviews in case of denials or when a prisoner in our original sample had been
transferred or released). We then sent our list of potential study participants to our liaison at the
prison, typically the public information officer or another lieutenant, so that the prisoners could be
notified by a ducat that they were invited to meet with an interviewer. This process resulted in a
93 percent participation rate.12
Two practices were key to protecting the integrity of random selection, prisoner privacy and
confidentiality, and ensuring that participation was as voluntary as possible in a prison setting.
First, ducats stated the appointment was for “research on prison life” or “interview,” and officers
were asked not to discuss the research with inmates. Although upper-level prison administrators
were briefed on why the research team was coming to the facility and why they were there for
multiple days, we made an effort to keep rank-and-file officers, especially the ones who escorted
prisoners to and from interviews, unaware of the purpose of the study. We did so in order to minimize the degree to which they could intentionally or unintentionally contaminate the field or
otherwise undermine the research. Despite our best efforts, on occasion it was clear that rankand-file officers had a (in some cases erroneous) sense of why we were there; we did not confirm
or deny their assumptions. Second, if an inmate could not be scheduled for the interview—for
example, because he had been paroled, transferred, or was in the hospital—the CDCR staff was
instructed to note the reason and then proceed to the next randomly selected person on the list
until all interview appointments were filled. A few people who were scheduled for interviews did
not show up to the meeting. They occasionally had another appointment at the same time (e.g.,
a medical appointment or a work assignment), and sometimes we were told that an inmate chose
not to leave his cell. Those who did not attend their interview appointment for whatever reason
were given an opportunity to be interviewed on a subsequent day.

12. Word inevitably spread among some prisoners that we were doing confidential interviews about prison life, and it
was not uncommon for us to be approached by an inmate not on our list asking to be interviewed. We did not comply with
these requests in order to remain true to random selection, but they do suggest to us that the research was favorably received
by those we interviewed.




The interviews were conducted in strictly confidential settings where only the interviewer
and interviewee were present, and where they could not be overheard. The location varied
depending on the available space. For example, we interviewed in correctional counselors’ offices,
staff lunch rooms, chapels, and visiting rooms, as well as conference rooms and what appeared to
be custodial closets. Once respondents had given their informed consent to be interviewed,13 we
asked permission to record the interview—with the understanding that the recorder could be
turned off at any time—which 91 percent of our respondents agreed to.
The interviewer asked both closed and open-ended questions about housing arrangements,
daily prison life, programming, problematic or bothersome conditions, perceptions of the inmate
appeals process, involvement with the appeals process, assessments of the legitimacy of the appeals
process, perceived fairness of the criminal justice system, and recommendations for improving the
grievance system. After a few initial rapport-building questions, we asked about problems in prison
and how they dealt with those problems. Later in the interview we asked if they had filed any
grievances and if they had, we asked about specific grievances they had filed, completing an incident form that included: (1) a grievance they had filed that was resolved informally; (2) the most
recent grievance they had filed; (3) the most important grievance they had filed; and (4) a grievance they had filed, if any, that had been granted.14 The interview instrument was semistructured
in format, and included follow-up questions that led to free-flowing exchanges. This allowed the
prisoners, who are often restricted from speaking with outsiders, to share their personal stories and
to have their voices heard. The average interview length was slightly over one hour, with the shortest lasting just under half an hour, and some extending well over two hours. As a final step, we
concatenated official data from the CDCR’s database on inmates (OBIS) to the interview data.
Because privacy concerns required that the identities of participants be kept confidential, we requested and received central file information on 80 prisoners from each of the three prisons (our
sample of 40 per prison, plus 40 “decoys”).
Table 1 presents statistical information on our study sample and the California men’s prison
population. In general, our procedures produced a sample that is comparable to the overall men’s
prison population in California. There are, however, a few notable departures. For example,
relative to the total prison population, our sample includes slightly more prisoners sentenced for
crimes against persons, more level 2 (low-medium security) and level 4 (maximum security)
prisoners, and fewer level 1 (minimum security) and level 3 (high-medium) prisoners. Our
sample cannot be regarded as statistically representative of the entire male CDCR population.
However, it is a diverse sample that captures the range of experiences men have in California
The coding process began with the authors keeping notes during the data collection
period—what Kathy Charmaz (2006) calls “memo writing”—to track emergent ideas and themes.
Once the data collection was complete, we read through a subset of interviews to develop preliminary coding categories designed to capture, among other things: (1) what prisoners identify
as problems; (2) how they make sense of those problems, including attributions of blame
for problems associated with prison life; (3) what grievances they had filed; and (4) whether they
feel fairly treated by the criminal justice system. A team of four advanced graduate students
then did “focused coding” (Charmaz 2006) of all the transcribed interviews, coding that was
subjected to multiple checks by members of the research team. These coded data, coupled with
concatenated official data and research notes, form the basis for the analyses and arguments
presented here.

13. People were not interviewed unless they gave their informed consent. Moreover, they were not required to answer
any question they chose not to answer and were allowed to discontinue the interview at any time. Recognizing that our
interviewees lived in carceral environments, the research design and attendant logistics were organized to ensure that we did
not, in any way, signal to people that they were required to participate, nor did we promise anything in exchange for participating.
14. A copy of the full instrument, including the incident form, is available upon request.

Inside the Pyramid of Disputes
Table 1 • A Comparison of Select Characteristics of the Study Sample and the Total Population in CDCR
Prisons for Men
Total Study Sample
Std. dev.
Crimes against persons
Custody level
Sentence type
Determinate sentence
2nd strike
3rd strike
Life without parole
Death row
Sex offender registration
Mental health



Total Adult Population in CDCR Prisons for Mena

































Source: CDCR’s Offender-Based Information System (provided to the authors by the CDCR)
Figures include the study population and exclude those residing in fire camps.
Race/ethnicity classifications are based on official CDCR data.
Correctional Clinical Case Management System.
Enhanced Out-Patient Program.

We begin our analysis in the following section by presenting the range of issues our respondents identified as problems and how they assigned responsibility and blame for their incarceration.
The problems these prisoners cite represent the front-end of potential disputes, an aspect of the
disputing pyramid that is often mentioned in passing but rarely examined in detail (for rare exceptions, see Earl 2009; Emerson 2008, 2010), much less in the prison context.




Naming in Prison: “This Can’t Be Right”
Identifying the Problems
The prisoners we interviewed named a wide range of problems, and most identified multiple
conditions and incidents as problematic. As we will see, contrary to what one might expect from
the literature, neither the stigma and vulnerability of prisoners nor the self-blame that many of
our respondents expressed significantly inhibited them from perceiving and naming these problems. Our interviews with prisoners began with conversational questions about where they were
housed and how it was going for them. A surprising number of them (44.2 percent) told us at first
that they were doing well (e.g., “I get along just fine;” “goin’ cool;” “all right;” “it’s goin’ good;” “it
goes well for me”); some (17.4 percent) even said they were doing very well (e.g., “can’t get no
better”). Early in the interview, we asked them if there were things in prison that were particularly bothersome to them. This may seem like a peculiar question to ask of people who are
deprived of their liberty in conditions that courts have declared to be cruel and unusual, but in fact
some of these men (17.6 percent) initially told us they had “no problems” and that nothing was
Over the course of our conversations, however, virtually all of them (96.2 percent) talked of
problems, with over 60 specific issues being mentioned. Even those who originally reported no
problems eventually raised multiple complaints about prison life. Most men (55.7 percent) cited
some aspect of living conditions, such as dilapidated facilities, bug infestations, excessive heat, and
broken plumbing. Beyond this multifarious category of living conditions, the most frequently
mentioned problems had to do with inadequate medical care (39.6 percent); disrespect from staff
(38.7 percent); property missing or damaged by the CDCR (33 percent); and the lack of programming or jobs (27.4 percent). If we focus only on problems named, and exclude those mentioned
within the context of specific grievances, the pattern is similar, with two important exceptions:
missing or damaged property falls out of the top tier into sixteenth place (in other words, when
property complaints were mentioned it was usually while discussing specific grievances), and staff
disrespect moves up to second place.
A wide range of problems associated with living conditions figured most prominently in these
prisoners’ interviews. For example, a black15 man in his forties who is housed in one of the older
prisons said: “You have the way they feed you, the cleanliness of the place, how it looks. Look at
the ceiling . . . It’s like living outside. You’ve got ants and roaches and stuff you can’t get rid of . . .”
(#10316). Sometimes conditions relating to concrete daily needs came up. Another black inmate,
when asked about the most common problem people face, told us, “It’s hard to get laundry . . . and
you gotta go through all kind of drama to get it . . . they come up with a fine reason you ain’t gonna
get it” (#10). A Mexican American who has been in prison for over a decade on a two-strikes
15. Our designations of the race/ethnicity of these prisoners are based on their self-identifications, some of which differ
in a number of interesting ways from their official racial classifications. For example, many of those officially classified as
“Hispanic” self-identified as “Mexican,” regardless of how many generations they and their families had been U.S. residents or
citizens. Conversely, the CDCR sometimes classified men as “Mexican” when they told us they were “Hispanic,” or in one case
“Hispanic/white.” Six of the 37 men officially classified as “black” self-identified as “African American.” One man who the
CDCR classified as “black” said he was “Cuban.” In the four cases in which people told us they were of mixed backgrounds—
“Indonesian/Mexican,” “Mexican and Cuban,” “African American/Puerto Rican,” and “Korean/black”—the CDCR classified
them as “Hispanic,” “Mexican,” “black,” and “black,” respectively. One person who said he was “Native American/Pima” was
classified by the CDCR as “Hispanic.” Interestingly, the category that remained most consistent across CDCR classification and
self-identity was “white.” The only exception to this was an individual who was officially classified as “white” but who referred
to himself as “European,” followed by the statement, “It doesn’t matter—whatever they normally do, ‘white,’ ‘Caucasian,’
‘European’—it’s just my ancestry” (#117). Beyond the issue of different classification categories, we are sensitive to the fluid and
contingent nature of racial identification, and it must be stressed that these self-descriptors may reflect this moment in time and
the prison context. See Saperstein and Penner (2010) for an interesting empirical study of the effect of incarceration on racial
16. Throughout this article we use randomly assigned study-identification numbers to reference individual prisoners.
This practice maintains confidentiality and allows the reader to track particular study participants throughout the article.

Inside the Pyramid of Disputes

drug charge and who lives with 100 other men in what used to be the gym and is now outfitted
with triple bunks, described the conditions: “You’re sharing six toilets with 100 dudes . . .” (#106).
Complaints about medical and dental care included some gruesome stories. A black prisoner
serving a two-strikes mandatory sentence for burglary told us of the aftermath of an accident during his transfer to the prison by state bus:
A mobile home ran into the state bus and the bus flipped over. I fractured my collar bone, injured my
spine, broke two of my teeth right here . . . They were supposed to take me to the hospital. Instead they
cut us out of the bus and just transported us on another bus. And then we came here and then still didn’t
get seen by medical for like another two weeks . . . They had me sitting here for like a whole two weeks
after knowing that I was injured. You could see my bone up here, my collar bone. I couldn’t bend over.
My lip was slit right here . . . (#152).

Others also spoke of problems seeing a doctor or getting medicine. A white Vietnam War veteran with post-traumatic stress disorder who is doing a life sentence for murder said he pulled his
own decayed teeth because the backlog to see a dentist was so long (#116). A white prisoner in his
mid-forties who is serving time at Desert Valley Center and is housed in a “special needs yard”
(SNY)17 told us of his experience trying to see a doctor:
I don’t think a person should have to go man down [“man down” refers to a prisoner lying prone on the
ground] if you got a serious medical need . . . I lost my hearing and my eye was drooping almost closed,
and it took them four days to see me . . . when they finally did see me the doctor thought I had Bell’s
Palsy . . . (#3).

It turned out that he had an advanced ear infection and had temporarily lost his hearing. Later, he
recounted how difficult it was to get painkillers because officials assumed he was an addict.
Other telling examples include a white prisoner at California Corrections Facility who had
open heart surgery before coming to prison and said he had gone for two weeks without his medication. He reported: “They left me without my medication for two weeks. I take blood thinners.
I have hardening of my heart and . . . I told them I need my medication or I was going to have a
stroke . . .” (#22). A man with a history of mental health problems serving time at Desert Valley
Center told us he had had a skin infection for a year and a half before getting care. He said:
I was trying to get antibiotics. I was having an itch that was like unbearable, man. It went on for, like
I said, a year and a half. They were telling me, “it’s in your mind.” I’m like, “yeah, if it was in your mind
and you were itching every day . . . you could at least try antibiotics.” And I finally seen the dermatologist
and he goes, “yeah, you’ve got a skin infection.” Gave me antibiotics. It just knocked it out (#154).

Missing or damaged property takes on added meaning in prison, where personal possessions
may be one’s only link to the outside world. A black prisoner and former gang member who had
become Christian (who, when asked his racial identification said he was “black, or AfroAmerican,
or whatever they’re calling us now”) said his property was lost while he was in administrative segregation and explained, “My pictures and stuff was in there . . . that was real important to me . . .
that’s the only way I see my son was through those pictures . . .” (#110).
An inmate housed in an SNY described his transfer to a different prison when the guards on
the bus told the prisoners not to talk to each other and that if they talked their property would disappear. Two men started talking anyway, and none of the prisoners’ property was waiting for
them at the other end. He said:
So when we get to [the name of the specific prison] I wait for my property and my property never showed
up . . . I’m like man, now I don’t have my watch, I’m really stressed out, my watch is gone . . . my personal

17. Special needs yards typically house prisoners who are at risk of violence from other inmates, for example because
they are “deactivated” gang members or because the nature of their crimes—rape or other sex offenses—makes them susceptible to retaliation.



pictures and everything. Pictures and stuff like that of my mom, my girlfriends back in the day . . . I’m
thinkin’ a guy might be walking around with my pictures and you know I really don’t like that, that
somebody get ahold of my personal stuff like that (#10).

Lack of rehabilitative programming was also a common concern. An alcoholic told us he
wanted to go to Alcoholics Anonymous while in prison, but it was difficult to get in: “It’s hard to
get on the list . . . You have to get in this rotation to get in, you know, it can take a few weeks to get
yourself on the list . . . and for you to get into a meeting. So I’m not basically getting any kind of
treatment and never got any kind of treatment in prison for my alcoholism” (#2).
The prisoner who spoke of sharing six toilets with 100 other men discussed the humiliations
of prison and staff disrespect. For example, he told us of what happened after tobacco was found
in a cell. After that, he said, everyone had to be strip searched on a daily basis: “Every time we go
out (to the yard) and come in, we gotta get strip searched. Every day . . . You know, it’s humiliating.
You feel harassed” (#106).18
The black prisoner in his forties who spoke at length about prison conditions (quoted earlier)
said the most common problem prisoners face is “Prison, period.” He has spent much of his life in
prison and referred to people like himself as “convicts” who have done what he called “hardcore
time” and who “demand respect,” as opposed to people who are just in prison briefly, who, he
said, will “lick [the officers’] boots” and “jump through the hoops.” He covered almost all of the
bases in terms of complaints, emphasizing what he called “asshole cops”:
The officers here are . . . on some kind of power trip most of them. Because you’re over somebody doesn’t
mean you can just treat them any kind of way or talk to them any kind of way, or look down at you.
We’re human beings just like you are . . . They got their way of doing what they wanna do. And they get
away with it . . . Say like I’m a cop and I don’t like you. I’m going to get this big rapist dude and put him in
a cell with you . . . or I’m going to pay him some lunches or give him something to get you . . . Or . . . I’m
going to tell the blacks the whites are whoop de whoops or [stuff like] this. Oh, man, all that type of stuff
really happens like they say on TV, it really happens (#103).

Later in the interview he said:
This place is a joke . . . They give these people too much power over you, over your life, your freedom.
They got these power-tripping people [guards] that need psychological evaluations . . . because they’re
the guys that got their lunch money taken in elementary school, and now they’re getting back on
people (#103).19

An Hispanic man in his twenties serving time in maximum security put it this way: “They treat
us like . . . we’re a bird in a cage. You know? And, they just get to open us up, or do whatever they
want with us. Tell us when to do this and when to do that . . . there’s no reason you should be
treated like this, you know?” (#83).

18. Beyond these more common complaints about living conditions, inadequate medical care, disrespect, and missing
property, a number of people spoke of the sheer boredom of prison. The man who told us about his skin infection and efforts
to get antibiotics later said, “I’m on my bunk 22 hours a day just passing time . . . It’s like if you ever saw the movie Groundhog
Day. That’s what this place is like, over and over . . . Men like rain because it changes the seasons a little bit” (#154). Commenting on the monotony of prison, an Hispanic man who had been in prison over five years on a drug charge talked movingly about how a group of them had been denied yard time, and had just gotten it back. “Believe it or not,” he said, “an hour
outside, it . . . you know, we can play some handball, we can work out, we can walk the track, you just go out there and sit
down, you listen to your headphones or music, and just get lost, and we need that, the yard” (#4).
19. While many prisoners voiced complaints about prison staff—guards in particular—others went out of their way to
extend the benefit of the doubt and were remarkably generous in their characterizations. A white inmate in a minimumsecurity yard, who was among the few who asked not to be recorded, said of COs: “There are some bad apples, but they are
just people like all of us. You know, when you are with people eight hours a day, you see them as people . . . It’s inevitable,
because they ARE people and you have to see them that way” (#60).

Inside the Pyramid of Disputes

Many others also focused on staff disrespect. A young, white man in a minimum security unit
We call this like PC [protective custody] for cops here. Because they get away with stuff here that they
wouldn’t get away with at a level 3 or a level 4 . . . There are no lifers here at all. Everyone here has a
release date, so police officers think that it’s okay to use obscene gestures, put us on the spot in front of
other inmates, and they can get away with it here because they know most people won’t do anything
because . . . they don’t want to do extra time (#11).

The black inmate who talked about his son’s pictures among his missing property said:
The COs tend to think we’re not human. We’re not people, we’re just criminals . . . COs get to mess with
you . . . you know what I’m sayin’? They get to pick at you and this is people’s lives versus a game to a
CO . . . It has nothin’ to do with their life. But, it has somethin’ to do with our lives. Because they have the
power to take away time. And, that’s something God gave us, is time (#110).

The emotional fallout of threats to one’s sense of self such as those evoked by strip searches
and staff disrespect is intensified in the prison environment. In her description of a maximum
security prison, Lorna Rhodes (2004) notes, “A sense of exposure and shame—the threat of being
‘broken’— . . . becomes a pervasive pattern of feeling, apart from any particular incident of
overt humiliation” (p. 56). She continues, quoting Michael Ignatieff (1986), “‘In the best of our
prisons . . . inmates are fed, clothed, and housed in adequate fashion . . . Yet every waking hour . . .
[prisoners] still feel the contempt of authority in a glance, gesture or procedure . . . Needs are met,
but souls are dishonoured’” (Rhodes 2004:57).
As we have seen, the prisoners we talked to spoke at length about a wide range of problems.
Some were related to the inadequacies of how they are “fed, clothed, and housed.” And, others
were about the threats to dignity and “dishonoured souls” that Ignatieff and Rhodes chronicle so
eloquently, and that are expressed in these raw, first-hand accounts.

Self-Blame and the Recognition of Problems
Contrary to what one would predict from the scholarship on self-blame and its tendency to
suppress the ability to name injurious conditions, the men in our sample identified prison conditions as problematic even when they expressed significant levels of self-blame. When asked
whether they think they have been treated fairly by the criminal justice system,20 43 percent of
the prisoners we interviewed believed they had generally been treated fairly by the criminal justice system, and 34.7 percent said that they themselves were to blame for their incarceration.
They expressed self-blame in very clear terms. For example, an Hispanic prisoner in a level 2
prison said, simply, “Whose fault is it? We brought ourselves here” (#51). Another revealed, “It’s
pretty much my fault for being in here . . . I smoked a lot of marijuana . . . got into it with the
mother of my child . . . all the basic faults of prison men . . .” (#1). Others were matter-of-fact:
“You do the crime. You do the time” (#159). Some seemed impatient with those who complained:
“We’re in prison . . . if you don’t like it, don’t come back, you know” (#4). And, “This is a prison
and it’s not Disneyland. They’re not here to make you comfortable. We did a crime and this is
what we get . . . I broke the law and this is the price I have to pay” (#156). An Hispanic man said
philosophically, “I’m a narcotics offender . . . I know my mistakes . . . so I’m at peace” (#157).
A Mexican American prisoner leaned in to confide, “You know what? And, this is a secret, so don’t
tell nobody. I’ve actually asked for this, because what I was doin’ on the streets . . .” (#106).
Occasionally too, an “ethic of survival” (Bumiller 1987, 1988) and a “cult of competence”
(Felstiner et al. 1980–81) surfaced. For example, the very term “convict,” which some of the
prisoners in this study used to refer to themselves, connotes a sense of pride in the ability to do
20. Interviewers asked the following question: “Looking back over your experiences in life and things you’ve done, do
you think you’ve been treated fairly by the criminal justice system?” Thereafter, we asked “why?” or “why not”?




“hardcore time.” Relatedly, prisoners speak of “doing time rather than letting time do you” as both
an imperative for survival and a badge of honor.
Yet, these same men were fully capable of identifying the problems of prison. The prisoner
who insisted he was a “convict” capable of doing “hardcore time” (#103) was among the most talkative of our respondents and told us at length about all the problems in prison. In one of the most
self-blaming interviews, an African American prisoner serving a two-year sentence for a sex
offense said he had to “take responsibility” for being in prison, but went on to say: “If you were to
stay here a month, I guarantee you would see things that [you’d say] ‘This can’t be right’” (#104).
And, the man who told the interviewer the “secret” that it was his fault for being in prison, began
the interview eager to talk about all the problems: “Well, sure, where do you want me to begin?”
(#106). The Hispanic prisoner who told us, “I know what I did so I’m at peace,” did not let others—
in this quote, guards—off the hook: “We messed up, so what? You’re no better than me [just]
because you’re in a green suit” (#157).21
Self-blame may sometimes muddy the perception of a situation as injurious, as suggested in the
literature, but almost without exception the men we spoke to—including those with significant levels of self-blame, as well as those expressing some version of a “cult of survival” (Bumiller 1987)—
pointed to problematic conditions both large and small, dramatic and seemingly mundane. Further,
as we see in the next section, they frequently contested those conditions in writing, often overcoming daunting internal and external obstacles to do so.

Grievance Filing: “You Know That Sometime You Just Gotta Get Up”
Almost three-quarters of the men in this study (74.2 percent) have moved up the disputing
pyramid at least once, filing a grievance with the CDCR over their problematic conditions. More than
three-quarters (76 percent) of these have filed more than once; some said they had launched dozens
of claims; a handful reported filing more than fifty; and, two said they had filed about 100 times.
A majority of prisoners within virtually every demographic or status group—age, race, education, gang status, mental health status, offense status, sentence type, registered sex offender status, etc.—have filed a grievance with the CDCR. For example, while the likelihood of filing
increases with prisoners’ age (probably reflecting length of time in prison, and therefore increased
opportunity22), even in the youngest age group (18 to 25 years) more than half (56 percent) have
filed an appeal. Those who identified as African American or black were most likely to have filed a
grievance (86.5 percent), but the majority of whites (82.8 percent) and Hispanics (60.4 percent)23
also reported filing at least once.24 Our random sample included few noncitizens, but of the nine
21. In California, prisoners wear blue and correctional officers wear green.
22. There is a statistically significant (at the .01 level) positive correlation between years incarcerated and having filed a
grievance. Those who have filed a grievance have spent on average approximately twice as much time in prison as those who
have not—9.4 years and 4.1 years, respectively.
23. A prisoner (#6) who identified himself as “Mexican” who had filed several grievances spontaneously offered, when
asked his racial identification, “We’re a hush-hush type of people. We don’t complain . . . I mean we complain emotionally,
but as far as ‘Man, I got a case and I need to fight this case. I’ll do it tomorrow.’ It’s not gonna happen. And that’s the type of
people we are.” When the interviewer asked, “And which group in prison do you think is not the hush-hush people,” he
responded, “the blacks.”
24. It is not our main concern here to track and explain variability in grievance filing, but rather to establish that a
majority in all groups have filed. Nonetheless, it is interesting to note that our finding that African American inmates file more
than those who identify with other race/ethnicities is contrary to what one would expect from some of the existing literature.
In their study of youth, Morrill and colleagues (2010) found that African Americans were proportionately less likely than
whites to have filed a complaint about their perceived rights violations and argue that this reluctance is in part due to African
Americans’ experiences of stigmatization and subordination. Other works similarly point to African Americans’ skepticism
toward legal solutions for their problems, shaped by centuries of subordination and their daily encounters with police
(Anderson 1999; Bumiller 1988). The higher grievance-filing rate among African American prisoners is thus at first glance
perplexing. One possible explanation is that the prison environment, consisting disproportionately of people of color,
upends the usual racial hierarchy and relative empowerment, as others have found in women’s prisons (Kruttschnitt and

Inside the Pyramid of Disputes

permanent legal residents and seven people “currently without papers,” 56.3 percent and
57.1 percent, respectively, had filed at least one appeal.
A pattern of grievance filing also emerges when considering prisoners’ perceptions of whether
they have been treated fairly by the criminal justice system. Men who perceived they had been
treated unfairly were significantly more likely to have filed a grievance than men who believed
they had been treated fairly (82.4 percent and 58.1 percent, respectively [p < .01]). Nonetheless,
even among those who believed they had been treated fairly, a clear majority had filed at
least once.25
Beyond these individual-level demographics, most respondents from each of the prisons and
custody levels have filed grievances. While a majority in each prison have filed, the size of that
majority varies. At maximum-security Green Valley Prison, 87.5 percent of our interviewees had
filed a grievance, while at California Correctional Facility, 70 percent had filed and at Desert Valley
Center, 65 percent had done so. This variation parallels custody levels. Of the men we interviewed
in custody level 4 (maximum security), almost 88 percent have filed a grievance; 82.4 percent of
those in custody level 3 have filed; 66 percent in level 2; and 66.7 percent in level 1 (minimum
security)26—a pattern we revisit when considering the impact on grievance filing of prison as a
total legal institution.
These men are aware that the odds are against them in the grievance process. In describing
their experiences with appeals, inmates were often adamant in their critiques. For example, a
white inmate serving time in a level 1 prison said:
Prisoner: It’s a hassle, a bunch of rhetoric, and you don’t normally get anywhere . . . It’s
Interviewer: It’s laughable?
Prisoner: [deadpan] Hilarious (#3).
Even more emphatic, a black prisoner serving a five-year sentence for possession of a controlled
substance reported: “Of course they can basically do to us what they want and you know, your
word doesn’t mean crap . . .” (#59). Another prisoner, also serving time for possession of a controlled substance, said the following when referring to the informal level of review that by policy
was not logged in: “Me writing my grievance out and giving it to [the correctional officer], all you
got to do is tear it up and say you never got it” (#103). The same person commented on how hard
it is to get “justice” with a 602 even when it is processed: “They use these back doors and loopholes” (#103). Summarizing his frustration with the asymmetrical quality of the process, an
American Indian in a level 2 prison who had filed twice said simply, “They decide. You just complain” (#18). Asked whether they agreed, strongly agreed, disagreed, or strongly disagreed (or
none of the above) with the statement “602s work pretty well,” only one of our respondents
strongly agreed (29 others agreed).27 In contrast, 43 either agreed (28) or strongly agreed (15)
that “Inmates think the appeals process is a joke because nothing ever comes of it.”28
Gartner 2005; Kruttschnitt and Hussemann 2008; Smith 2012), with corresponding shifts in rates of legal mobilization—an
explanation that underscores the extraordinary power of institutional context.
25. The only exception we found to this majority-filing pattern was among the ten people whose interviews were
conducted entirely in Spanish. Of these, only four had filed a grievance, no doubt explained in part by the added challenge of
filing for non-English speakers. Technically, the CDCR is required to “provide the assistance necessary to ensure that inmates
who have difficulty communicating in written English have access to the appeal process” (Title 15, Article 8, Section 3084.1.b);
however, there is no indication of any active effort to do so and no one we spoke with said they had received assistance from
the CDCR.
26. While it is possible that some of the grievances these prisoners report were filed at a different facility or custody level,
we are confident that current custody level serves as a useful indicator to assess the empirical relationship between custody
level and filing.
27. This section of our interview was administered to only 81 men from our sample, after an initial run at Desert Valley
28. Prisoners’ continued use of the grievance process despite their negative attitudes about it is consistent with Gallagher’s
(2006) study of legal attitudes and disputing in China.




Indeed, the grant rate for grievances appears to be low at every level of review. It is difficult to
estimate grant rates at the informal level because the CDCR did not log in informal grievances and
no data were gathered on outcomes at this level. And, calculating grant rates for the formal levels
of review is complicated by the fact that CDCR’s annual reports classify as “granted” any grievance
that is either “granted in part” or “granted in full.” In the Annual Report of the Inmate Appeals
Branch for 2005–2006 (CDCR 2006), fully 55 percent of grievances were classified as “granted”
at the first level of review, 44 percent were “granted” at the second level, and 5.8 percent were
“granted” at the final level. Our research reveals, however, that the substantive grant rate is far
lower than these statistics suggest. Our random sample of 459 formal grievances that reached the
third level of review in 2005–2006 provides our best empirically derived estimate of grant rates,
and the ratio between full grants and partial grants. Of this random sample of grievances that
reached the third level, we found that only .2 percent were granted in full; 4.5 percent were
granted in part; and more than 95 percent were denied. If we assume that this 1:22.5 ratio of
full grants to partial grants roughly applies to earlier levels of review, we can calculate that of the
55 percent of “grants” reported by the CDCR at the first level, approximately 2.4 percent were
granted in full; at the second level, of the 44 percent reported as “granted,” an estimated
1.9 percent were granted in full. This low grant rate was affirmed anecdotally in our interviews
with CDCR staff. When we asked staff who regularly respond to grievances to describe for us an
appeal they had granted in full, several at first drew a blank. One appeals coordinator told us,
“I can’t think of one offhand because it’s so rare.” An examiner in the Inmate Appeals Branch said
categorically, “I never grant in full. I only grant in part” (emphasis in original). When asked to
estimate how many appeals they had dealt with, the modal response of these CDCR personnel
was “thousands,” yet 95 percent of them estimated they had fully granted fewer than 30.
Further, our random sample of grievances reveals that many “partial grants” are more symbolic than real. As an illustration, in several of these grievances inmates requested that there be no
retaliation for their filing; the “granted in part” they received was based on the CDCR response that
there would be no retaliation. In another example, an official told us of a prisoner who filed a grievance alleging staff misconduct and said he wanted the staff member disciplined, noting in passing
that staff should be properly trained. His grievance was “granted in part”—the granted part being a
statement that “All our staff receive training.” Summing up the symbolic nature of partial grants,
an examiner at the third level in Sacramento told us, “Almost every partial grant is pro forma.”
While we cannot know real grant rates with precision, these statements from both CDCR
staff and prisoners, as well as empirical evidence from our grievance sample, suggest that truly
successful inmate appeals are relatively rare (cf. Milovanovic and Thomas 1989).29 In addition to
the remote likelihood of prevailing and prisoners’ related cynicism, several other features of the
prison landscape present potential disincentives or barriers to filing. For one thing, as we saw
above, many of these men blame themselves for their imprisonment, and the literature suggests
that people who blame themselves for a situation are unlikely to launch a claim (Bumiller
1987, 1988; Coates and Penrod 1980–81; Felstiner et al. 1980–81; Hendley 2010; Hoffmann
2003; Michelson 2007). Indeed, among the men we interviewed those who expressed self-blame
for imprisonment were less likely to have filed a grievance (although the correlation is not statistically significant). Surprisingly, however, even among those who blame themselves, a clear
majority have filed at least one grievance. Further, there is a statistically significant negative correlation between the belief that one has been treated fairly by the criminal justice system and filing
a grievance. Once again, however, even among those who believe they have been treated fairly,
the majority have filed (58.1 percent, compared to 81 percent of those who said they had been
treated unfairly).
Prisoners are a highly stigmatized population, and by virtue of their imprisonment have been
officially labeled troublemakers. Staying out of trouble is a persistent theme in their narratives
29. As Milovanovic and Thomas (1989:55) point out with regard to prisoner litigation, it is possible that some inmate
grievances may result in relief even if they are not officially granted; however, this informal success rate is difficult to measure.

Inside the Pyramid of Disputes

about managing prison life. Almost half of our sample (47.2 percent) spontaneously mentioned
“staying out of trouble,” “keeping to myself,” and/or “minding my own business” as one of their
operating principles in prison. A white man who had been in prison on and off for close to two
decades and had become a Buddhist, told us he deals with any potential problems or things that
are bothersome by staying out of trouble: “I don’t . . . get involved with anything I perceive [to be]
negative. So, I, I’m trouble free” (#204).
Staying out of trouble and perceiving trouble are often conflated in the comments of these men
who have been defined as troublemakers. When asked if there were problems for inmates, the
man quoted earlier whose property and personal pictures disappeared after a transfer said, “Ya
know . . . you can get in trouble if you want to, if you want to get in trouble, but you know, other
than that it’s easy.” Asked again if there was anything bothersome, he answered, “No, cuz you can
stay out of all that.” Later in the interview, when he was asked if he had ever used the law on the
outside to solve problems, he said, “No, because [I don’t want to] put myself in a sticky situation.
I see them other guys get caught up in sticky stuff, you know, but me, I try not to get caught up
with that kind of stuff” (#10). Likewise, a young Hispanic man who had never filed a grievance said
he had never filed a lawsuit either: “Nope. Stay as far away from the law out there as I can” (#160).
This population has known trouble.30 They have suffered troubles (such as abuse, homelessness, and drug addictions), and been in trouble—often simultaneously and in ways difficult to
untangle. One would think that this complicated relationship to trouble—both in itself and compounded by self-blame—would be a powerful force in the ability to name, blame, and claim. Yet,
even among this group who spoke of the importance of avoiding trouble, the majority had at
some point filed a grievance.
Potential barriers to filing go well beyond subjective factors such as self-blame, stigma, and
the related concern about “trouble.” A central aspect of the “trouble” these men spoke of was
retaliation by officials against prisoners who file grievances. More than 61 percent of inmates
raised the issue of retaliation in their interview, sometimes in response to a question and sometimes impromptu. Further, in the last section of the interview when they were asked whether they
agreed or disagreed with the statement, “COs retaliate against people who file 602s,” 70.5 percent
either strongly agreed or agreed (in contrast to 17.9 percent who disagreed, and only one person
who strongly disagreed).
A man who self-identified as “Mexican and Cuban,” in maximum security at Green Valley
Prison on a 24-year sentence, has filed five grievances in just under five years in prison. He said
he has not filed more, “Cuz it don’t work. And, if it does work, then they’re gonna take it out on
you one way or another . . . They’ll get real vindictive . . . they’ll get back at you . . . It’s just too
much, you know” (#163). A Mexican serving a life sentence at California Correctional Facility
estimated he has filed 20 times, and said that he doesn’t file more “because I know there’s always
consequences” (#115).
Many prisoners specified the consequences they may incur as a result of filing a grievance.
A “Hispanic and white” prisoner at maximum security Green Valley Prison who has served almost
15 years and filed 20 appeals reported he has seen inmates retaliated against:
Because they file a 602, all of a sudden all their stuff, they transfer them somewhere and all of a sudden,
their property’s missing. Gone . . . Ya, and they never see it again. And they put them on a bus and they
transfer them up and down the state, and they never get off the bus. [Q: “What do you mean they never

30. An incident occurred during one interview that was a sharp reminder of how seriously “trouble” is taken in this population, and the sometimes unanticipated challenges of prison research. One of the co-authors of this article thought she had
developed rapport with an inmate interviewee and happened to joke during the interview that she was “going to get in trouble” for something. Looking straight at her, and suddenly serious, the respondent said, “I don’t believe that.” She asked him
what he meant, and he replied derisively, “You’re not going to get in trouble.” The emotional force of his response stunned
her, and she apologized, “You are right. I’m sorry.” To which he said quietly, “So don’t say it” (#60). Clearly, he knew what
getting in trouble was, whatever she was talking about was not it, and she had no right to speak playfully about such serious



get off the bus?”] They give them the bus treatment. [Q: “But they’ve got to get off eventually”]. You get
off for like one day and you’re back on the bus in the morning . . . And I’ve seen that happen (#25).

A man in prison for two years on a DUI who had filed twice echoed the observation made
by many others that a prisoner who files grievances may get his locker searched, or his property
taken, or be transferred: “You better be ready to deal with the repercussions that go with it, and
sometimes staff does retaliate, and you get your locker searched more, or you’re moved from
where you’re at to someplace else, you know . . . it can be a hassle for you” (#2). A Mexican man
who had been in prison for over a decade and who has filed three times was succinct: “They might
roll you up. Send you somewhere else. Or they might come over here and just take whatever you
have” (#6).
By far the greatest fear of retaliation had to do with jeopardizing release dates. Sometimes this
was expressed in the context of discussing daily prison life. A man in prison on a drug charge
explained that prisoners often endure abuse by guards in order not to jeopardize their release date:
I’ve seen somebody get roughed up [by a guard] over something really stupid . . . like picking up a tray
that wasn’t his in chow. The cop brought him in the other room, slammed him up against one of the file
cabinets and said, “You gotta fucking problem?” And gets all up in his face. He wants to go home like the
next guy so he looks down at the ground and says “No” (#151).

Quoted multiple times above, the black prisoner in his forties (#103) was characteristically eloquent:
You got to remember that they [“cops”] will act like they’re cool like a snake. They’ll act like they’re cool
with you and then they’ll bite you . . . that’s why I don’t get into much of anything. I try not to see a problem. I don’t let them see that I have attitude. Because that’s what they do, they test people, they see what
you’re workin’ with and see if they can get under your skin. If they can, they’re goin’ to be on you. So
you can’t let them see you sweat . . . Then you think “I’m really trying to go home, but this dude is just
pushing, pushing, pushing,” and they do that, and they know they can get away with that . . . And that
really tears you up because you get to thinking about, “okay, I want to see my granddaughter who
I haven’t seen” . . . Oh, man, they can get under your skin (#103).

When discussion of release dates came up, it was usually in the context of filing grievances.
An African American in his mid-twenties serving a three-year sentence for possession of a controlled substance said he had never filed a grievance. He told us, “I’m too close to the house, so
most of the issues is not worth me filing a 602 and then . . . being a target by the COs” (#111). The
white inmate who said that prison was like Groundhog Day said, “I just want to do my time and
get out of here. I don’t need no extra time. They gave me quite enough, thank you” (#154).
A white man serving time for burglary who had only filed once said, “The more you push
paperwork towards officials in these facilities the harder they can make it on you. Oh, they can make
it extremely hard on you. They can actually take your date away” (#54). An African American man
imprisoned on a drug conviction said he had filed about 15 times, and reported that he was punished
for it: “I had a good job in the program office; it took me three years to work up to that position . . .
and they just snatched it away from me, and they moved me here . . . scrubbing toilets.” He continued, “Yes, there was retaliation and . . . that’s why I’m not going home August 2nd” (#59). Another
man in prison on a drug conviction who had never filed, explained, “You might have 20 years [to
serve] and you go through an appeal and they might mess around and sentence you to life and
you’re all messed up” (#153).
In this context of self-blame, stigma, cynicism, and vulnerability, it is all the more remarkable
that the vast majority of these prisoners have filed a grievance, and many have filed multiple
times. When we asked them why they use the grievance process despite its limitations and the
repercussions for them, we often heard some version of, “It’s all we got” or “What else can I do?”
But, even considering how serious the problems of prison life can be, how high the stakes for prisoners are, and the absence of any other mechanism for redress, it is unclear why this particular
institutional population often overcomes the significant barriers to claims making that suppress it
among other vulnerable and stigmatized people.

Inside the Pyramid of Disputes

It might be argued that prisoners have a high grievance-filing rate simply because the PLRA
requires them to exhaust internal remedies before gaining access to court. While this explanation
is plausible, our data do not support it. When asked whether they had ever filed a lawsuit while in
prison, only 14.3 percent of our respondents said they had—with many of these lawsuits appealing trial-related processes, competence of legal counsel, prison sentences, and other such matters
not relevant to inmate grievances that contest conditions of confinement. Further, of the 217
inmate grievances these respondents described in detail, only 11 (5.5 percent) had been taken to
court. It is possible that some prisoners file a grievance with the intention of getting access to court
but later change their minds. Again, however, our data suggest otherwise. During the interviews
prisoners very rarely mentioned utilizing the inmate appeals system to get to court, despite the fact
that the interview schedule allowed ample opportunity for them to provide their views on the
inmate appeals system, the function of the system, their motivations for engaging with the system,
their experiences with the system, and the overall performance of the system. When asked if they
had ever filed a grievance “to get to court,” 93 percent said they had never done so.31 In short,
there is very little evidence to suggest that prisoners use the inmate appeals system primarily to
get to court.
It might alternatively be argued that these men file grievances to exercise agency within the
disempowering context of prison, to tell their story, or simply to get something off their chests. Positing such functions seems especially reasonable given that these men are very much aware they
are unlikely to prevail in their grievances. However, they cannot by themselves account for the
bulk of grievance filing. Indeed, over the course of sometimes lengthy and meandering conversations our respondents rarely touched on the psychological or symbolic rewards of appealing conditions of confinement; they were more likely to note the demoralization of losing an appeal than the
subjective satisfaction of filing one.32 When asked directly, 35.7 percent answered affirmatively
that they had filed at some point “to tell the story of what happened,” 10 percent said they had filed
“to get something off their chest,” and only 5.7 percent said they had filed to “get back at a guard.”
The findings presented thus far prompt a more institutional analysis of claims making within
prison walls. The following analysis focuses on “the rule of law” in prison.

Prison and the Rule of Law
A black inmate in a level 1 prison who has filed two appeals explained that he does it despite
his fear of retaliation, because “right is right and wrong is wrong” (#23). Other prisoners referred
not only to “right” and “wrong,” but more specifically to law and policy. Indeed, the narratives of
these men were replete with references to Title 15 and the Department Operations Manual
(DOM), copies of which are given to every prisoner who enters the system. These published
documents are generally understood by prisoners and CDCR personnel alike to contain the official
rules of prison life dictated by the CDCR (as opposed to the informal rules created and sustained
by prisoners and officials). They indicate rights, obligations, and privileges, as well as describe
processes and procedures.
An Hispanic man serving a three-year term for forgery quoted chapter and verse of Title 15.
Asked about the problems of prison, he did not hesitate: “Our Title 15 says that we’re supposed to
get three hours a week of yard time. We don’t get that, you know, so that’s a problem . . . That’s
stated by the state of California, saying that’s our exercise time” (#58). Similarly, a Mexican

31. While the vast majority of these respondents clearly do not file simply to get to court, it is worth noting that any form
of legal mobilization on a large scale—whether grievance filing or court appeals—is at first glance inconsistent with the prevailing disputing literature outlined earlier.
32. Milovanovic and Thomas (1989) suggest that, even when unsuccessful in court, the litigation of jailhouse lawyers
may have symbolic meanings, constituting “an existential response to repression” (p. 56). It is an interesting argument, but
difficult to test empirically. The data we have on inmate grievances include little evidence that such symbolic functions are
predominate features of this form of legal mobilization.




inmate, interviewed while he was in a cage in administrative segregation,33 cited Title 15 in
explaining a grievance he had written: “The problem was the visiting. I had no visiting . . . For
Title 15, whenever an inmate gets transferred from prison to prison, his visiting file is still good.”
Later, he said everything prisoners have coming to them is spelled out in Title 15: “It’s written in the
Title 15—Inmates got this coming, these proportions, this much food, so when we on our tray don’t
get that same amount of food, [it’s a violation]”(#27).34 A 63-year-old Mexican, who has served
almost 30 years of a life sentence, summed it up at the end of his interview. He said he wanted
people to understand that prisoners file 602s because “It’s a right that is being violated. We have
a right to get certain things because the DOM says that we have a right to this and that” (#24).35
Many of our interviewees emphasized that if they have to abide by the myriad rules and regulations that apply to them, staff should comply with their departmental policies, too. A black prisoner with a disability said he was told by a correctional officer (CO) that he could not have the
“boots and braces” he was supposed to get, and asked us rhetorically, “Who is he to overshadow
the guidelines?” (#30). When asked what was the most important 602 he had filed, another black
prisoner serving over two decades on a two-strikes sentence said it was one in which staff had
falsified documents relating to his classification status. He explained:
There’s rules and regulations for us to follow . . . and in this DOM they have rules and regulations to follow. So they just can’t come and do as they please and we can’t just do as we please because there’s rules
set for both sides . . . And when they break their rules they should be penalized just as well as we should
be. So if we break a rule, they punish us by a 128 or 115.36 If they break a rule, they should be punished
(#23; emphasis in original).

The man whose picture of his son was lost when he was in Ad Seg filed a citizen’s complaint
and a 602 for staff harassment and disrespect. He explained, “Cause they has their rules too. So,
you can’t call me out a name [just like] I wouldn’t call you out a name” (#110). The prisoner
whose property disappeared after his transfer similarly explained that he consults the Title 15
when he files: “Yes, they break a rule, we go get that book [Title 15] and we write it up . . . They
can’t break the rules, cuz that’s the rules” (#10).
Law and society scholars have noted that law permeates everyday life but often seems
“remote,” “sit[ting] on a distant horizon of our lives” (Ewick and Silbey 1998:15). In contrast, law
in prison is rarely invisible, taken-for-granted, or submerged; instead, its presence and its relevance for all things is relentlessly apparent. Not only are minute aspects of life inside prison shaped
by legal officials, and exit is not an option—as in many other total institutions—but here the levers
of law are conspicuously on display. We do not mean to imply that all legal rules are actually implemented in prison, nor that the gap between the law-in-the-books and the law-in-action is any
less pronounced in prison than elsewhere. The point instead is that while law in everyday life is
salient but largely subterranean, in prison it is emblazoned across the landscape.
It should not be surprising that prisoners mobilize law—or the proxy that is immediately
available to them, the administrative appeals process—in this context in which law governs every
aspect of their behavior and scrupulously rations out the goods that supply their daily needs. It is
consistent with this interpretation that the maximum security prison—the total carceral institution
that is most tightly governed by rigid strictures and explicit mandates—produces the most inmate
grievances of all. Recalling Kruttschnitt and Gartner’s (2005) comparative work, we know that the
microtrajectories of a prison affect inmates’ experiences, even as prison itself is the master text.
33. Because our respondents were randomly selected, some came from administrative segregation. In this case, the
officers in the Ad Seg unit brought the respondent out of his cell dressed only in underpants and handcuffs and put him in
a single-person cage in a conference room for the interview. Despite these restrictive and oppressive conditions—or maybe
because of them—this prisoner seemed eager to talk to us.
34. A prisoner not in our sample told one co-author in another context, referring to Title 15, “It’s the Bible in here.”
35. There was remarkably little reference in these interviews to constitutional rights or any other legal documents
besides the Title 15 and DOM.
36. These are the numbers on the forms used to document prisoners’ disciplinary infractions.

Inside the Pyramid of Disputes

Just so, prisons vary according to the rigidity and palpability of their legal constraints—with the
maximum security prison comprising the prototype of the total legal institution—but it is a
defining feature of all prisons that they are in essence places of lawful captivity.
To sum up our argument thus far, despite a heavy dose of self-blame, cynicism, and concerns
about retaliation, it makes sense that inmates in these total institutions that foreground law,
engage with it.37

Revisiting Retaliation, Deconstructing the Disputing Pyramid
This is not to say that internal and external impediments have no effect on grievance filing. As
we have seen, even though a majority of those who blame themselves for their imprisonment
have filed, there is a negative correlation in our sample between self-blame and the likelihood of
filing. Further, most of the men we interviewed reported that they had at some point considered
filing a grievance but did not. Sixty percent of those who had filed at least one appeal said that they
had considered filing other times and decided not to.
Concern for retaliation permeates the narratives of many of our respondents, and a closer
look at what they say provides a clue as to how that concern plays out in grievance filing. Most
notably, these narratives suggest that the retaliation prisoners fear most is triggered by one type
of grievance: complaints against staff. We heard again and again that grievances against staff (as
opposed to, for example, living conditions, medical care, or missing property) are the most likely
to result in retaliation. A black man serving a three-year sentence who had never filed an appeal
said, “If you 602 somebody, or a staff, or something like that there’s gonna be retaliation . . . And
there’s retaliation around here . . . It won’t be physical . . . and it might not be mental, but something’s gonna happen and you know somebody’s not gonna like you, so you’re just causing yourself to make an enemy” (#1).
The white man in prison for a DUI who had filed twice explained,
Sometimes they [grievances] blow up in your face. The staff retaliates, especially if you write them on
staff . . . They’re in a position where unless you feel strongly about it, it’s a good idea just to . . . do what
you have to do, but you have to be willing to go and take the extra crap that goes with it . . . So you better
make sure you want to mess with that. That’s how I feel. Or what I’ve seen (#2).

A black inmate serving a lengthy sentence for burglary, who had filed two grievances, said he
should file more: “I think about it each week, I should do it, I should do it, but I have to remember
if I start a 602 [against a CO] . . . My house would be tipped upside down. It’s like opening up a can
of worms” (#23).
A man interviewed in Spanish who had never filed a grievance in more than a decade of incarceration, said: “If you do a 602 the officers will send you to the hole. Once a new officer . . . he
slammed the door on me and smashed my finger. And he broke it. And this part was dislocated
. . . and there was a lot of blood. And they told me if I wanted to do a 602 I’d have to go to the hole”
(#78). A white inmate housed in a special needs yard on a sex offense, who had filed only once in six
years, explained why he did not file more:
You know sometimes you don’t want to [file]. You’re thinking you can become a troublemaker by doing
602s, they retaliate to that. Like when I finally filed it, it was a medical issue that was like going on two
years and wasn’t resolved. I was like, man, I’ve got to do it . . . But like I said, the more you do it, the more
the cops hassle you. If you’re writing a 602, especially if you’re writing on officers—they say they’re not
allowed to retaliate but they do. They come tear up your locker or take your tv, whatever they do
(#154; emphasis added).
37. Blackstone, Uggen, and McLaughlin (2009:664) found that in cases of workplace sexual harassment, the variable
most positively correlated with legal mobilization was strong “horizontal worker-to-worker relationships,” suggesting that
these relationships provide critical support for holding perpetrators accountable. While we have no direct evidence of this in
this study, it may be that prisoners’ close living quarters, their shared status as prisoners, and the strong “horizontal” ties
among them have an independent effect and/or may amplify the effect of the legal-institutional context.




A Mexican man in prison on a life sentence said, “One thing . . . that I’ve learned in prison is that
you try your best—after so many years of bein’ in the system— never to 602 an officer. Medical or
certain items . . . you know, up to a point, but when it comes to staff . . . you try not to because
there’s always consequences” (#115; emphasis in original). Several people reported that when an
inmate files a complaint against staff, the retaliation may come from another staff member. For
example, a prisoner serving a ten-year term for drugs, who had filed three times, said, “I’ve seen
a person file a 602 on an officer . . . He [the officer] will have another officer or friend just go
through your stuff and take what they can . . .” (#103).
The formal process for staff complaints is slightly different than for other types of grievances,
and the details of this process arguably compound prisoners’ perception of vulnerability. The official process for handling staff complaints was specified in a CDCR administrative bulletin sent to
all supervisory personnel in 2003. The bulletin consisted of a seven-page “training module” followed by several attachments and a multiple-choice test. It began:
Staff complaints raise important issues with respect to how we manage our core responsibilities. Information developed through staff complaint inquiries can provide the Department critical information regarding its effectiveness at managing the inmate population . . . Since institutions are environments where
allegations of misconduct may reflect attempts by inmates to manipulate or retaliate against staff, the
right of staff to due process is critical to preserve the integrity of the system (CDCR 2003:2).

Because of concern for the rights of staff and possible repercussions for their career, and
because of the assumption that inmates may “manipulate or retaliate,” the focus of the procedures
specified in the Bulletin is on guarding against false charges. For example, inmate grievances in
these cases must be accompanied by a “Rights and Responsibility” form signed by the appellant.
The form states in part:
It is against the law to make a complaint that you know to be false. If you make a complaint against an
officer knowing it is false, you can be prosecuted on a misdemeanor charge. (An inmate/parolee who
makes a complaint against a departmental peace officer, knowing it is false may be issued a serious disciplinary rule violation in addition to being prosecuted on a misdemeanor charge).

This warning and its not so implicit assumption of prisoner prevarication up the ante on staff
complaints, and in combination with prisoners’ concerns for retaliation—including the loss of
their release date—may be definitive barriers to filing in these cases.
A close look at the types of grievances prisoners in this study reported filing bears this out.
Remember that the problems most frequently mentioned by prisoners overall had to do with living
conditions, medical care, staff disrespect, and property, in that order. In contrast, when focusing
only on issues that were named as problems outside of the context of grievances, property was not
in the top tier. The 217 grievances these men reported to us diverged from this pattern in two
important respects: property was the most frequently reported grievance (19.4 percent of grievances concerned property), while complaints against staff took a distant fifth place (constituting fewer
than 8 percent of the grievances), tied with concerns about programming. When we asked these
men what their most recent grievance was about, only 7.2 percent reported that it was a staff
complaint.38 In other words, missing or damaged property—a less contentious issue with fewer
potential repercussions39—was less often named as a problem but became a much more common
focus of grievances than staff misconduct, which was rarely claimed.

38. In addition to asking about their “most important” grievance; a grievance that was resolved at the informal level (if
any); and a grievance that was granted (if any), we asked them to tell us about their most recent grievance. We assumed that
the “most recent” grievances would be most representative of grievances in general because they are not selected on any substantive criteria other than least distant in time.
39. Interestingly, when we asked CDCR staff what kinds of grievances are easiest to handle, they said it was grievances
that involve missing property.

Inside the Pyramid of Disputes

Some of these men had filed grievances against staff despite the potential repercussions. Nonetheless, prisoners in this study left staff complaints on the ground floor of the disputing pyramid—
naming them, but not claiming them—more often than other issues.40 There is never a one-to-one
equivalence between naming problems and claiming remedies, with people often simply “lumping
it.” These interviews reveal not only that there is a significant amount of both naming and claiming
within this prison population, but that there is a pattern to prisoners’ “lumping”—a pattern shaped
in part by a widespread perception of reprisals against those who file staff complaints.

Discussion and Conclusion
The extant literature on disputing and legal mobilization suggests that American ideology
includes an “ethic of survival” and “cult of competence” that militate against launching legal claims
(Bumiller 1988; Felstiner et al. 1980–81); that people who blame themselves for a situation are
unlikely to seek redress (Coates and Penrod 1980–81; Hendley 2010); and that the historically
subordinated, structurally vulnerable, and/or socially stigmatized often eschew legal mobilization,
even when they perceive a situation to be injurious (Bumiller 1988; Hoffmann 2003; Michelson
2007; Morrill et al. 2010). Legal consciousness studies that describe the ways disempowered
people harness law as a “weapon of the weak” (Scott 1985) complicate this picture and reveal that
the ability and willingness to mobilize law is contingent (Cowan 2004; Ewick and Silbey 1998;
Lazarus-Black and Hirsch 1994; Lovell 2006; Merry 1979, 1990). While the focus on law as a tool
of the suppressed reveals the complexity of people’s attitudes and their legal practices, the precise
conditions under which subordinated people use that tool is rarely specified.
The current study advances our understanding of the contingency of legal mobilization by
examining empirically the naming, blaming, and claiming process in the prison environment.
While not contesting the general pattern reported in the disputing literature, nor minimizing the
hurdles faced by the vulnerable in launching grievances, we see here how a particular institutional
arena can enhance legal mobilization, trumping the forces that usually tamp it down. We thus
draw attention to the contingency of the effects of ideology, self-blame, stigmatization, and vulnerability, on legal mobilization, but more precisely to the awesome power of institutional context.
California prisoners launch thousands of internal grievances annually, with over 15,000
reaching the third level of review every year. In our interviews with a random sample of 120 men
in three California prisons, virtually all of our respondents identified a host of problems in prison,
and almost three-quarters of them reported having engaged in the grievance process. Well over
half of our respondents have filed more than one grievance and many have filed ten or more times.
Some of our respondents blamed themselves for their incarceration and told us they believed they
have been treated fairly by the criminal justice system. While these men are somewhat less likely
than others to have filed a grievance, the majority of even this self-blaming group identified multiple problems and have filed at least one grievance. Similarly, many of the prisoners in this study
voiced a commitment to “keeping to myself,” “minding my own business,” and “staying out of
trouble.” And, almost two-thirds of these men mentioned concern for retaliation. Yet, even those
who were intent on staying out of trouble and expressed a concern for retaliation identified problems and most had filed some kind of grievance. There are patterns to these men’s grievances, and
the patterns suggest that they are not immune to the considerable pressures of prison. Most notably, these men reported filing on property more often than anything else, and more rarely filed
against staff—a category of grievance they said was most likely to result in serious retaliation, such
as extensions of their release date.
40. The influence of potential retaliation on inmate grievance filing is not unique to our sample of California prisoners.
A recent study of the grievance process in the federal prison system reveals that of the inmates who “had a problem but didn’t
file,” the single most common reason was “afraid of staff retribution,” with 18 of 53 respondents citing this factor (Bierie




We argue here that their extensive use of the grievance system has to do not only with the considerable array of problems inmates confront, but also with the hyperlegal nature of the total institution that holds them. As Justice Stewart said, for these prisoners the state prison system is their
“landlord,” “employer,” “tailor,” “neighbor,” and “banker.” But, the state is also their legal “captor”
and as such, law personified. In this institutional context, law is an unavoidable master text. As a
man serving time for robbery put it, highlighting the salience of legal rules, “There’s rules set for
both sides;” or, as another said emphatically, “They can’t break the rules, cuz that’s the rules.”
Elizabeth Hoffmann (2003, 2005) is among the few previous scholars who has empirically
examined how variation in the institutional context affects legal mobilization. Focusing on two
taxicab companies, Hoffmann (2003) found that more internal grievances were filed in the company with a flatter workplace hierarchy. Consistent with the literature on disputing and vulnerability, she argues that workers who are institutionally empowered may be more comfortable
making claims. In light of her findings, the ability and willingness of the men in the current
study—in one of the most extreme hierarchical settings imaginable—is all the more remarkable
and attests to the decisive influence of distinctive features of the legal-institutional environment.
While it was not the goal of this project to examine systematically the filing differences across these
three prisons, it is noteworthy that the maximum-security prison, which is the most overtly regimented by law (and has the most pronounced hierarchy), yielded the most grievances.
If we are to advance our understanding of the conditions under which people recognize
injurious conditions and launch claims, we need to move beyond broad-brush patterns to explore
empirically the precise institutional and structural settings that facilitate and/or inhibit legal mobilization, as we have begun to do here. Future research might add further detail, for example specifying the relationship—only hinted at here—between racial identification and legal mobilization
and the ways distinct institutional and social environments may enhance claims making by historically subordinated racial groups. More broadly, while it is difficult to imagine an institution as
overtly regimented by law as the prison, if we think of a continuum along which institutions can
be sorted according to the overt or subterranean quality of their legal regimen, it may be possible
to document in more detail the relationship between this aspect of the institutional environment
and legal claims making.
Faced with an array of problematic conditions and confronted with daunting internal and
external obstacles, most of the men in this study have sometimes scaled the pyramid of disputes.
Across California, every year tens of thousands of prisoners do so, filing grievances contesting the
physical injury, moral insult, and other indignities of prison life. At one level, the U.S. Supreme
Court’s finding in Brown v. Plata (2011) that conditions in California prisons violate the Eighth
Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment is an affirmation of what prisoners
have been reporting for years through their grievances. At another level, the Court’s finding reveals
the demonstrable inadequacy of the inmate appeals system despite prisoners’ repeated efforts
to hold the authorities accountable. We should perhaps not be surprised that these prisoners’ grievances, in which the CDCR effectively acts as both defendant and judge, are rarely granted. While
prisoners may be empowered in this legal institution to name, blame, and claim, in the absence of
systemic change in how their grievances are processed—at a minimum, the establishment of thirdparty respondents—this steep pyramid of disputes is unlikely to alter substantially conditions on
the ground, where cell temperatures can exceed 100 degrees and dog kennels are air-conditioned.
Until then, as the prisoner quoted in the epigraph said, “They decide. You just complain.”

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Cases Cited
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Campbell v. Chaves, 402 F. Supp. 2d 1101 (2005).
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Statutes Cited
Omnibus Consolidated Rescissions and Appropriations Act of 1996. Public Law 104–134 (110 Stat. 1321).
42 U.S. Code Sections 1997–1997h.