Criminal Justice Policies

Project: Prison and Jail Grievance Policies: Lessons from a Fifty-State Survey

By: Michigan Law Prison Information Project

October 18, 2015

This project was completed in 2015 is by a group of Michigan Law students.  They collected, analyzed, and summarized prisoner grievance policies from 53 Departments of Correction (for the Federal Bureau of Prisons, each state, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico), and the nation’s 12 largest metropolitan jails. Each policy itself—obtained via the web or by Freedom of Information Act requests—is available below. In addition, we post a 2006 set of links to grievance polices for every state prison system, and a number of jails, organized by state.

Sunlit prison fences with security wire, and turnstile of Mira Loma Detention Center in Lancaster California.

Project Summary

The prison and jail grievance policies the group obtained exhibit significant variation.  The authors wrote: "It is this variation that allows us to present the recommendations below. Where we observed particular grievance rules that seemed troubling—unfair, especially onerous for prisoners, etc.—and those rules are unusual, we recommend the more common practice. Other recommendations work the converse way: where some jurisdictions have unusual but very appealing rules, we highlight those as promising practices for others to follow."  In total, they made 20 recommendations:

General policy features: 

1.  Grievance policies should clearly define what is and is not grievable. 

2.  Given the sensitivity and urgency of complaints related to sexual abuse, health care, and emergencies, policies should specifically address these types of grievances. 

3.  Policies should expressly address remedies, and should allow, at a minimum, remedies of institutional change and restitution and/or restoration.

Access: 

4.  Jurisdictions that require informal attempts at resolution should not require face-to-face communication between grievants and staff about whom they are complaining.  

5.  For formal grievances, jurisdictions should avoid the burdens of face-to-face submission by using secure submission boxes or submission via mail. 

6.  Jurisdictions should streamline their paperwork processes, allowing use of grievance forms; jurisdictions should avoid having too many different forms whose use is mandatory. 

7.  Prisoners should be able to readily access forms in common areas of the prison, as well as through case workers or counselors. 

8.  Policies should protect access to the grievance system for prisoners who make good-faith procedural errors.

9.    Jurisdictions should provide ways segregated prisoners can access the grievance process. 

10.  Jurisdictions that impose single-subject rules should provide reasonable safeguards, such as permitting prisoners to refile grievances rejected as covering too many topics, providing time extensions in order for prisoners to refile, and not counting the denied grievance towards a maximum number of grievances per prisoner.

11.  Jurisdictions should permit third-party assistance in all cases.

Appeals and notice

12.  Appeals should be decided by a committee and/or an individual not associated with the Department of Corrections.  

13.  Policies should require officials to provide notification to prisoners at each stage of the grievance process. 

14.  Policies should require officials to provide written reasons for denials or rejections of grievances at each stage of the grievance process.

Time limits:

15.  Prisoners should be afforded at least 10 days to initiate the grievance process. 

16.  Prisoners should receive exceptions to time-bars for good cause. 

17.  Policies should explicitly provide that in the case of an ongoing grievance, the clock begins to run at the time of the most recent incident. 

18.  Policies should start the clock for subsequent steps when the prisoner receives notification of the decision on the prior step.

19.  Policies should require officials to provide initial responses within 30 or fewer days.

20.  Policies should require officials to provide initial responses within 72 hours for emergency grievances. 

They concluded: "Our report aims to increase the transparency of prison and jail grievance processes. More importantly, we hope that highlighting the positive policies that are actually in place in various jurisdictions leads to reform. Grievance processes are critical for prisoners seeking redress for legitimate complaints. Outcomes may also determine a prisoner’s ability to seek justice in the federal courts. We urge all correctional systems to evaluate their own grievance policies and work towards creating a more fair and effective system."

 

 


Publications/Resources

Prison and Jail Grievance Policies: Lessons from a Fifty-State Survey

By: Priyah Kaul, Greer Donley, Benjamin Cavataro, Anelisa Benavides, Jessica Kincaid, Joseph Chatham

October 18, 2015

This report by a group of UMich Law Students summarizes information gathered by analysis of prisoner grievance policies from 53 Departments of Correction (for the Federal Bureau of Prisons, each state, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico), and the nation’s 12 largest metropolitan jails. Each policy itself — obtained via the web or by Freedom of Information Act requests — is available at https://clearinghouse.net/policy/2/5. They exhibit significant variation. It is this variation that undergirds the recommendations below. Where the authors observed particular grievance rules that seemed troubling — unfair, especially onerous for prisoners, etc. — and those rules are unusual, they recommended the more common practice. Other recommendations work the converse way: where some jurisdictions have unusual but very appealing rules, they highlighted those as promising practices for others to follow.


Prison grievance statistics (Excel)

By: Michigan Law Prison Information Project

October 18, 2015

This downloadable excel spreadsheet, posted in October 2015, summarizes statistics on use and results of prison and jail grievance systems from 2003 to 20013. It is part of the project "Prison and Jail Grievance Policies: Lessons from a Fifty-State Survey" (October 2015), available at https://clearinghouse.net/policy/2/5.


Database of prison/jail grievance policy characteristics (Excel)

By: Michigan Law Prison Information Project

October 18, 2015

This downloadable excel spreadsheet codes various aspects of all 50 states' prisons (and the 12 largest jail systems) grievance policies. It is associated with the project, Prison and Jail Grievance Policies: Lessons from a Fifty-State Survey (October 2015), available at https://clearinghouse.net/policy/2/5.


Prison and Jail Policy Document Repository

By: Civil Rights Litigation Clearinghouse

October 15, 2015

This is a searchable and sortable repository for prison and jail policy documents. It includes policies, from nearly every state prison system and a dozen or so of the nation’s largest jails, governing prisoner grievances, mail and publications, and visiting. It also includes inmate handbooks—some state-wide, others facility-specific—from nearly all the states. And it includes previously unavailable grievance statistics covering varying periods from 2007 to 2014, for about twenty states. Many of these documents were posted by the relevant governmental entity, but for many more a state Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request was necessary. A more detailed view is available here. This page includes the policies relevant to this report: "Prison and Jail Grievance Policies: Lessons from a Fifty-State Survey." More details available at https://clearinghouse.net/policy/2/5.


Prison Grievance Procedures and Samples (2006)

By: Margo Schlanger

October 1, 2006

This 2006 list links to grievance polices for every state prison system, and a number of jails, organized by state. Private prison grievance policies appear at the bottom of the list. Many of these policies were first gathered for the briefs filed in Jones v. Bock and Williams v. Overton, in the U.S. Supreme Court, by Yale Law School's Jerome N. Frank Legal Services Organization. Those briefs (linked) are good resources for discussion of inmate grievance policies nationwide.