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Prison and Jail Grievance Policies: Lessons from a Fifty-State Survey (October 2015)
This report is by a group of Michigan Law students.  
Report (PDF)  |   Grievance statistics (Excel)   |   Database of grievance systems (Excel)

Executive Summary & Recommendations:
This report 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 They exhibit significant variation.  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, we make 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.


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. 

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.