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)
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 http://clearinghouse.net/policy.
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:
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
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
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.
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
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
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