Can Grievances Work in My Favor?
If you have worked in a correctional facility, you are undoubtedly familiar with grievances. Whether you’ve been the grievance officer or the victim of a false accusation, it’s important to understand the procedure of delivering complaints from an inmate to the administration. This blog will explain the grievance process and how it can be a valuable tool for the risk management team in your facility.
What’s the difference between a Formal and Informal Grievance?
By definition, a grievance is known as a “complaint.” When an inmate files a grievance, it means that they are making a complaint. Whether the grievance claimed by the inmate is truthful or not, it’s required by law for facilities to provide inmates a formal grievance process while they are incarcerated. While inmates’ rights are significantly diminished while imprisoned, they still have the right to ask jail officials to fix any problems they’re experiencing. All corrections professionals understand that inmates will challenge staff and complain about the conditions of confinement. When inmates complain, they are in other words making an informal grievance. This means an inmate telling an officer about a problem they are experiencing, and the officer tries to resolve the particular issue immediately. This informal resolution is a key defense, but if the inmate is not pleased with their results, they then have the opportunity to file a formal grievance.
Note that formal grievances should not be filed until the inmate has attempted to resolve the concern in an informal manner. Should the need for a formal grievance arise, the inmate filing the grievance needs to fill out a grievance form. Forms must be readily available and must clearly state that no reprisals will be taken against any inmate who submits a grievance. The forms are solely designed to meet general institutional needs and should contain appropriate space to include the following information:
- The name of the grievant
- Date and time of grievance submitted
- Grievant’s housing location
- Description of the problem
- Grievance request to remedy the problem
- Grievant signet
- Signature line for the hearing officer
- Date response issued
- Date response delivered
- Signature of appellate authority, if applicable
Who Makes the Final Call?
Grievance form response expectations vary from facility to facility. Some facilities require the form to be filed no more than 30 days from the alleged incident while other facilities require a maximum of no more than five days. No matter the timeline, the inmate filing the grievance should be personally interviewed either by a hearing officer or committee within a reasonable period of time, generally not to exceed one week from the date the grievance was filed (Wallenstein, 1989). Once the form is filed, the institutional administrator may designate a single employee, generally of middle to senior supervisory rank, as the institutional grievance officer to review and respond to the grievance. This individual will be solely responsible for the review of all grievances, the administration of the procedure, the preparation of all documents, and their distribution. Some facilities utilize a grievance committee, which may be more appropriate in a very large institution where the number of grievances may require several simultaneous reviews or investigations.
Any grievance officers must be impartial, meaning the individual or committee hearing a particular grievance should not have any involvement or personal direct knowledge of the situation (Wallenstein, 1989). The timeline set forth should be adhered to, so it is important for the facility to set forth a reasonable policy that both promptly addresses the concerns of the inmate, but also gives staff enough time to give an informed response. The appeal process should be included, as this gives an additional layer to resolve the issue without involving the courts system (Wallenstein, 1989). Once the final verdict has been reached, the response must be in written form and should contain sufficient information to demonstrate both the reason for the submission and the reasons for every disposition. Inmates are entitled to know the reasoning behind a final decision (Wallenstein, 1989).
How Does this Benefit the Staff and Facility?
Tracking grievances can keep administration aware of what is happening on the floors. Line staff, shift supervisors, and watch commanders play vital roles in the resolution of issues in the facility and are often the endpoint of many issues. By regularly reviewing grievances, an administrator can see a broader picture of the temperature within the facility and help evaluate the need to revise policies, isolate problem areas, and improve institutional operations. For example, think about an issue that has the population ready to boil over, but can be resolved. Perhaps the food vendor isn’t meeting standards. A quick review of the complaints can let the administrator know where to focus their valuable time in spot-checking operations.
A sound grievance procedure may also be part of your facility’s accreditation process or state standards (Wallenstein, 1989). If there’s a deficiency in your facility’s grievance procedure standard, it could increase your liability in a lawsuit. Establishing the grievance procedure, adhering to it, and communicating the process to the population is a strong start to an active defense against litigation. Contrastingly, grievances can also help reduce the chance of being caught in a lawsuit. This can be a two-fold effort, in a way. On one hand, the grievance procedure allows the facility an opportunity to remedy the situation prior to a need for litigation. Secondly, in most cases, an offender is required to prove that all remedies have been exhausted prior to filing litigation. The Prison Litigation Reform Act, with respect to prison conditions under Section 1983, provides that no action shall be brought unless administrative remedies that are available are exhausted (Ryan, 2012).
Chris Riedmueller, Product Trainer at GUARDIAN RFID, previously worked as a facility administrator and found grievances very helpful in many ways. While he wasn’t the grievance officer, Chris was typically consulted if the grievance couldn’t be answered by utilizing policy and procedures. He found that grievances were extremely useful in how he managed the facility.
I spent several years mitigating the risk of my facility. I saw cases dismissed, not only at my facility, but at those of my colleagues, due to the offender failing to utilize the grievance process. It is of note, however, that the inmate needs to be made aware of the process, in order for them to use it. This can be done through the inmate handbook or orientation.Chris RiedmuellerProduct Trainer at GUARDIAN RFID
Some jail administrations are afraid to initiate an inmate grievance procedure out of a mistaken belief that line officers will have their authority diminished as inmates file written grievances concerning any written policy, procedure, or act by staff with which they do not agree. However, well-trained staff maintain professionalism and understand that the existence of inmate grievance procedures challenges neither authority or the safety and security of the facility. In these jails, control exists as a matter of policy and procedure, not of force. This helps ensure that authority is properly used while serving as a check against potential abuses and helps officials determine which policies need to be reviewed, revised, or abolished (Wallenstein, 1989).
While the word “grievance” can give pause to many in the corrections industry, we hope this blog gives insight on how the grievance procedure can be used as a tool to protect line officers, administration, and the facility from potential litigation. Learning the requirements of the grievance process teaches staff that the procedure is not a threat to the line staff but helps maintain institutional discipline and security. Remember that as you review your grievance procedures, a quick consultation with your risk management team and county attorneys can help to ensure you have the best defense on the field.
Ryan, Jack (2012). Handling Grievances in a Jail / Detention Setting
Retrieved from: https://www.llrmi.com/articles/legal_update/jail_grievances/
Wallenstein, Arthur M. (1989). Inmate Grievance Procedures