Written by Kelan Lyons, NC Policy Watch.
A new report on North Carolina’s prison grievance procedure found that some incarcerated people do not think the policy resolves their complaints and fear they will be punished for raising an objection about their confinement.
“If we write a grievance we will be wrote up and put in the hole,” one person wrote in a letter sent to NC-CURE, a nonprofit advocacy group behind the investigation.
“Any grievance that’s written with merit about officers’ wrongdoing does not get addressed when it will expose the officers,” wrote another.
The prison system’s administrative remedy procedure is a mechanism by which the roughly 30,000 people in state prisons can try to resolve a complaint about an incident or policy in the prison in which they are confined or imprisonment more broadly. The process is as follows:
The prison grievance process
- Incarcerated people must file a grievance in writing within 90 days of the incident that gives them reason to complain. After the grievance is submitted, corrections officials have three days to determine whether it should be accepted for review or rejected, based on its compliance with the rules.
- If it is accepted, prison officials must provide a formal written response to the aggrieved within 15 days, fulfilling “Step 1.” They also meet with the aggrieved to explain their response and attempt to resolve their grievance. If the incarcerated person isn’t satisfied, they can appeal within 24 hours of the Step 1 decision, initiating “Step 2.”
- During this stage, prison officials must review the pending grievance and give another written response, this time within 20 days of the date of appeal. If the incarcerated person is still unsatisfied, they can appeal again, where the complaint is then sent to the Inmate Grievance Resolution Board and assigned a grievance examiner for “Step 3” review. That official can conduct their own investigation or rely on the investigations completed in the prison. That examiner can deny the grievance or order a fix within 20 days.
- The IGRB’s decision cannot be appealed.
A successful grievance could mean a change to a prison policy, restitution or restoration of personal property, among other options.
NC-CURE collected letters from incarcerated people over four months in 2022 and turned them over to two professors at East Carolina University’s Department of Criminal Justice. The researchers analyzed the letters and made three overarching findings: 1) grievance procedures are not followed by prison staff, 2) the appeals are ineffective, and 3) the people in prison fear retaliation or retribution for complaining.
In a letter sent to NC-CURE on March 27, Jodi Harrison, general counsel with the Department of Adult Correction, said the department agrees that it is important to have a “functional, robust and effective Administrative Remedy Procedure,” but that “such a system is already in place and working as intended within the North Carolina prison system.”
NC-CURE’s findings contradict the stated policy of the prison system, but they align with a federal court’s ruling earlier this year. A three-judge panel of the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals found that North Carolina’s prison grievance procedure is such a confusing and confounding process that it’s questionable whether incarcerated people can even access it.
“What exactly is the grievance process for?” one prisoner wrote in a letter to NC-CURE. “Is it to help us resolve issues with our complaints or help staff cover them up and conceal them? The grievance process really isn’t for us but for the staff.”
Goals versus reality
The goal of the administrative remedy process, according to the prison system’s policy, is to give the incarcerated “an opportunity for administrative settlement of legitimate grievances.” Such a system “seeks to reduce tension and provide a stable atmosphere by providing formal channels of communication of grievances.”
The policy prohibits retaliation against a prisoner for logging a complaint and says employees who “intentionally obstruct the grievance process” are supposed to be punished.
But imprisoned people who sent letters to NC-CURE said that is not always the case. One person said staff “take subtle yet implicit measures” to prevent the incarcerated from even accessing the form they need to fill out in order to grieve. Even when they submit the paperwork, another prisoner wrote, staff will intercept the grievance and throw it away. Another person said they simply never got a response to their grievance.
Someone serving a long prison sentence mentioned the Inmate Grievance Resolution Board, the ultimate decision-maker for those grievances that reach Step 3.
“Not once has the IGRB ever contacted me for further information or clarification. Not once in 31+ years,” someone wrote.
The five members of that board are appointed by the governor and are employees of the prison system. The report notes that there is no external oversight of the board, and that in many cases those tasked with investigating a grievance are the same people who are alleged to have caused it.
“These are clear examples of the fox guarding the henhouse,” the report reads.
In the letter to NC-CURE, Harrison called the IGRB the “center of the DAC Administrative Remedy Procedure.” She said the “external avenue for appeal” was unusual, that very few states have a grievance process like North Carolina’s.
Harrison said the IGRB was housed in the Department of Adult Correction because that department is legally responsible for providing the board’s staff, equipment and facilities. But the IGRB “functions independently” from the prison system, Harrison wrote, as evidenced by the fact that the last three secretaries of the prison system have never overturned an IGRB decision.
NC-CURE filed open records requests to glean more about the volume of grievances submitted within the prison system. They found that there were 27,000 grievances that entered Step 1 in the 2021-2022 Fiscal Year. About half of those were resolved.
About 11,000 grievances were appealed at Step 2, and 2,700 were overturned and resolved by the IGRB.
The report references an unnamed former “prison staff member” who backs up many of the researcher’s findings. She said that the grievance system is biased toward prison system employees, even when complaints are legitimate. She said that, over her 20 years with the agency, grievances are frequently tossed out by staff, the timelines laid out in the policy are not followed, incarcerated people are unable to provide evidence substantiating their claims and prisoners get little follow-up information on their complaints.
Harrison said the IGRB and DAC are both committed to improving the grievance procedure. She said IGRB staff trained employees from all state prisons within the past year, and audited the grievance practices at each prison. When there were deficiencies, board staff provided follow-up training, undertook corrective action and, when necessary, audited the prisons a second time.
Recommendations for change
NC-CURE suggested the state appoint a task force to revise the prison system’s administrative remedy procedure. Task force members would include current incarcerated people and prison employees.
That task force, the report said, should consider ways to improve how grievances are investigated, make sure staff adhere to grievance procedures and increase transparency both for the general public and members of the incarcerated population.
The DAC, the report recommends, should make changes of its own, too. Those include delegating responsibility for who is directly responsible for making sure the grievance procedures are followed, creating electronic filing systems at all prisons that give the incarcerated population tablets, and giving prisoners pre-addressed envelopes stuffed with blank grievance forms so they can so they can pass them to the warden without worrying about employees mishandling them or throwing them away.
Harrison said the DAC is already considering putting the grievance process on the tablets it gives to the incarcerated population, but such a consideration needs to be “carefully evaluated” before making that substantive of a change to the grievance process.
“DAC acknowledges there is always room for continued improvement in practices, and we are committed to our ongoing education and training efforts,” Harrison said. “When NCCURE receives specific complaints regarding grievance handling or processing, DAC would be happy to look into them, but this will require sufficient detail be provided to allow for meaningful review.”