A piece by California inmate and jailhouse legal advisor Richard Gilliam appeared earlier this month on “The Informant,” KALW public radio’s excellent blog on “Cops, Courts, and Communities in the Bay Area.” Gilliam describes the complex system for filing grievances within California prisons–a system in which complaints against prison administration are handled by none other than the prison administration.
This rigged system, in which inmates must exhaust all “internal” grievance procedures and jump through carefully timed hoops before they can have access to the courts, was codified by the Prison Litigation Reform Act. Keep in mind that this is the procedure prisoners must follow if they feel they have been unjustly placed in solitary confinement–and they must do it all from inside an isolation cell.
For inmates confined within the facilities of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, there exists a means by which grievances can be addressed: the CDC Form 602. This distinctive, avocado green form is ubiquitous and can be found in every housing unit in every prison and facility in California. The California Code of Regulations Title 15, the prison rule book, states, “any inmate or parolees 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.”
These noble words and the ready availability of the forms belie the fact that the process is edentulous and sometimes results in a huge waste of taxpayer funds.
For inmates filing a grievance, the first lesson they learn is that they are appealing to a Department of Corrections employee regarding the actions or policies formulated by another departmental employee. That’s like the rooster complaining to the fox that his brother fox is stealing chickens. The fox is going to justify his brother’s actions no matter how right or wrong they are.
I have filed dozens, perhaps more than 100 grievances for myself and on behalf of other inmates for issues such as verbal abuse by prison staff, theft of property by correctional officers, due process violations, and denial of access to the prison law library. I have had perhaps five actually granted. This is because I am persistent.
There are four administrative levels of review for an inmate grievance: informal, formal, second-level, and director’s level. It takes months for a grievance to wind its way through to the director’s level. Most inmates simply give up out of frustration and departmental policy makers know this, so they are happy to hand out 602′s all day long, secure in the knowledge that they will get away with whatever indiscretion has been committed.
Despite all of these built-in obstacles, Gilliam writes, a rare prisoner complaint does make its way to the courts.
The most famous and expensive litigation may turn out to be Schwarzenegger v. Plata, the prison health care case currently before the US Supreme Court. The case is going to cost the taxpayers a lot of money and may result in the release of thousands of inmates due to inadequate health care in prisons. And that case began because an inmate, Plata, couldn’t get the medical care he thought he deserved, so he filed a 602.
Another case, decided by the US Supreme Court in 2005 is Johnson v. California. In this case, Johnson, an African-American inmate, wanted to be housed with an inmate of a different race. CDC personnel denied his request, so he filed a 602. The CDC claimed it was necessary to house same-race inmates together for safety, but the courts ruled that this policy discriminated against Johnson and other inmates on the basis of race, and was unconstitutional. This case undoubtedly cost Californians tens of thousands of dollars, all because the CDC didn’t want to give inmates a choice about whom to live with.
This is just another example of authoritarian hubris that I live under and you must pay for.