A 2013 study found that the grievance system utilized by the federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) appears to have become an important tool to defuse prisoner complaints, supporting the belief that the failure of BOP officials to adequately respond to grievances contributes to higher levels of violence in federal prisons.

The research study determined that another benefit of the BOP’s grievance system is deflecting or reducing potential litigation. Indeed, many federal court decisions have been decided in the BOP’s favor based upon prisoners’ failure to exhaust administrative remedies as required by the Prison Litigation Reform Act.

The study, “Procedural justice and prison: Examining complaints among federal inmates (2000-2007),” was conducted by David M. Bierie with the U.S. Marshals Service and the Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice at the University of Maryland. Although it concentrated on what it termed the “procedural justice paradigm,” the study also revealed what Bierie called an unexpected finding: “violence grew as the number of support staff per inmate (e.g., teachers, counselors) declined within a given prison. However, the opposite effect was found with respect to increases in custody staff per inmate within a given prison.”

The study appears to validate the BOP’s grievance system. “Generally speaking, people feel a process is more ‘just’ when their voice is heard before decisions are made, decision-makers treat everyone equally, outcomes are proportionate, and there is a process of appeal or challenge if they don’t agree with an outcome.” The opposite is also true if the system is perceived to be unfair; thus, the grievance process plays “a central role in generating compliance or defiance” by prisoners.

The study makes liberal use of other research into the U.S. criminal justice system to lend weight to its conclusions. Several previous studies had found that a grievance system was not only about directly resolving problems, but also allowing prisoners to vent their frustrations and anger about perceived injustices by prison officials without resorting to violence.

According to the 2013 study, prisons “present an environment optimized to magnify the likely impacts of perceived injustice by presenting environments that are characterized by verbal threats and insults, physical pain, unpleasant odors, disgusting scenes, noise, heat, air pollution, personal space violations, and high density.”

Therefore, “[p]erceived injustice is serious, especially in the eyes of inmates, and the impact and relevance is further magnified by the environment they live in, delivering a near-constant state of elevated and clustered strain.”

The study found that the BOP’s grievance system is perceived by some prisoners as overly formal and more concerned with procedural practices and deadlines than the substance of a complaint. Accordingly, “data suggest a higher volume of late or rejected [grievance] responses will increase violence.”

Bierie examined data from the BOP’s Sentry system, staffing levels in federal prisons, and other BOP documents showing the number and classification of prisoner grievances over a seven-year period from January 2000 through December 2007.

The research revealed that most complaints concerned issues related to discipline, medical care, and staff, with food, housing and use of force at the bottom of the list. The number of procedural grievance rejections and prisoner density (i.e., overcrowding) were tracked, as well as the ratio of prisoners to BOP employees, to determine if a relationship existed between those factors and levels of prisoner violence.

Interestingly, according to the study, the number of grievances appeared to peak in 2004 while assaults and serious violence within BOP facilities increased from 2000 through 2007, perhaps reflecting increased overcrowding in the federal prison system.

In addition to its other findings, the study concluded that “most features of the grievance process … did not impact violence. Neither the volume of current complaints nor the distributive justice outcomes predicted violence.” However, “[t]wo features of the grievance process consistently predicted … violence: the proportion of responses which were late, and the proportion of responses which were substantively rejected.”

Source: “Procedural justice and prison: Examining complaints among federal inmates (2000-2007),” by David M. Bierie. Psychology, Public Policy and Law, Vol. 19(1), Feb. 2013.

(Published by Prison Legal News; used by permission)

About Christopher Zoukis, MBA

Christopher Zoukis, MBA, is the Managing Director of the Zoukis Consulting Group, a federal prison consultancy that assists attorneys, federal criminal defendants, and federal prisoners with prison preparation, in-prison matters, and reentry. His books include Directory of Federal Prisons (Middle Street Publishing, 2020), Federal Prison Handbook (Middle Street Publishing, 2017), Prison Education Guide (PLN Publishing, 2016), and College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Company, 2014).

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