Cheating At Chess (The flaws of the Administrative Remedy in Prisons)
In prisons, there are venues for prisoners who have been abused or treated unfairly or inhumanely. When things like this happen, a prisoner has a right to sue, but only if he can get his case to court.
The problem is that because of PLRA, or Prison Litigation Reform Act, it’s much more difficult for a prisoner, even if he is right, to get his case to court. In essence, PLRA requires prisoners to first exhaust the Administrative Remedy procedure… or a grievance procedure. In Federal Prisons, it is known as a BP.
So quick scenario; a Black prisoner is being harassed by white officers, who: constantly use racial slurs and trash his cell, taking his family pictures and other valuables. The prisoner tries to file a BP to get to court. Months pass, with no success, so he tries to take it straight to court. The court shoots down his claim, because he did not go through proper procedure of filing a grievance. So, even if the prisoner is right, the courts won’t acknowledge his lawsuit because he didn’t go by the rules.
But, is the prison going by them? Let’s talk about that, and how prisons like USP Tucson are actually breaking the rules, making it very difficult for prisoners to properly file a lawsuit, because the Administrative Remedy procedure is horribly flawed.
To begin, let me pull up a statement from a case law, Woodford v. Ngo 548 US 81, 126, S. Ct 2378, 165 L.Ed 2d 368 (2006). I want to share with you an argument a prisoner had about the grievance procedure, and what the argument against it was:
“Respondent contends that requiring proper exhaustion will lead prison administrators to devise procedural requirements that are designed to trap unwary prisoners and thus to defeat their claims. Respondent does not contend, however, that anything like this occurred in his case, and it is speculative that this will occur in the future. Corrections officials concerned about maintaining order in their institutions have a reason for creating and retaining grievance systems that provide — and that are perceived by prisoners as providing - a meaningful opportunity for prisoners to raise meritorious grievances. And with respect to the possibility that prisons might create procedural requirements for the purpose of tripping up all but the most skillful prisoners, while Congress repealed the “plain, speedy, and effective” standard, see 42 U. S. C. §1997e(a)(1) (1994 ed.) (repealed 1996), we have no occasion here to decide how such situations might be addressed." - Justice Samuel Alito
In short, this argument claims that the prisoner was incorrect that prisons could – and do – make it much harder for prisoners to file a grievance. After all, if the prisoner can’t file the grievance, he can’t get to court to sue the officers. In the above case, the Black prisoner is trying to go through the procedure, meaning he has to exhaust the grievance procedure, before he can go to the courts. This kinda makes sense, because one intent of the PLRA is to prevent a lot of frivolous lawsuits by prisoners.
But in doing this, there is a flaw, one prison has used a cheat in the procedure. Let me explain:
To begin the BP, or grievance process, a prisoner must first have an issue… ok, check. The prisoner claims discrimination against officers, so he has a right to file a grievance. Well, step one, as I use USP Tucson as an example, is to get what is called a BP-8. This is the lowest form of the grievance, and it should be available upon request.
Problem: Here at USP Tucson, it isn’t. The prison makes a policy that ONLY the Counselor can hand out a BP-8. So, what if the Counselor isn’t there? You have to wait to find the Counselor, because apparently no other officer in the world can get that piece of paper. This is already an obstacle of due process. In other states, you can get a grievance form from any officer, especially the ones working in your dorm. It makes sense, they are there all day, why not allow them to pass out the grievances?
But, if you change the rules, you then regulate how often you pass out the grievances. Now, you can’t get a BP unless there is a certain officer there. And if he/she isn’t there, they don’t pass them out. So, in theory, a Counselor can stiff-arm prisoners from getting a BP, by making excuses of not being there, or “not having any”.
I say this from a LOT of experience… this happens a lot here at USP Tucson. Many prisoners are frustrated with the Administrative Remedy because for most, it simply does not work. The case law implies that all prisons want to make the grievance procedure available for the maintaining of order, this is not necessarily true at all.
Another technique for obstructing the grievance procedure is to simply “lose” the grievance. If you manage to corner the Counselor and get a BP-8 form, you then have to fill it out and hand it back to them. Problem: The BP-8 is a single white piece of paper, and once you hand it to the Counselor, you have NO copy. So how do you know they actually processed it? In many cases, they don’t. They either “lose” it, or simply trash it.
So, if you can get past the BP-8, there then is a formal BP-9, which is on carbon paper. You have to fill out the form (if you’re lucky enough to even get one), then turn it in to the Counselor (if you can find “Waldo”), and wait for them to give you a carbon copy, if they don’t lose it or trash it.
Additionally, the carbon paper on the BP-9 is so poor, you have to have the strength of the Hulk to press down, to make the copy on the second page, let alone the third or fourth. So, the BP-9 is almost worthless after the first copy is torn off.
If you get no responses from the BP-9, then you have to go to the BP-10, which goes over the heads of staff. But rinse and repeat on the procedure. It is incredibly difficult to get the forms, when in actuality, it should ALWAYS be available to any prisoner, at any time, by most staff members. But staff plays keep away, from prisoners, to prevent them from getting the BP’s, so they cannot timely file.
I say all this from experience. In February, I filed a BP-9 against staff in my dorm because they refused to give us chemicals to clean the showers during a lockdown. Over that period of time, an average of 30 prisoners used each shower cell, and not one drop of chemicals were used to clean it. Think about that, how many of you would walk into a shower after 30 other people had already used it? How about 10? Even 5? No one here should have to do that, but staff knew about it, and did nothing.
So, I wrote a BP-9 and the Case Manager took it and “turned it in” to the Counselor, long story short, as of this date, 9 September 2022, I have heard nothing, and they had only 30 days to respond. My guess, they threw it away.
This is much like cheating at chess, where we have to match wits against a facility that seems to be dead set on preventing prisoners from properly (and legally) filing a grievance. Let us not lose the fact that the grievance procedure is Constitutionally protected; no officer or staff has the right to prevent prisoners from filing.
But, if you cannot complete the grievance, you cannot get to court, because they will claim, as the case law showed, that the inmate didn’t do the proper work, when in fact he did all he could do, but staff aggressively prevented him from being able to file. The courts seem to be blind, or naive, that prison officials would actually HONOR the grievance system.
Think about that, why would they honor a system that holds their staff accountable? Do you really think they are going to play fair if, in the example I gave, a Black Prisoner is trying to sue racist officers? Do you really think they are going to let the BP’s go through, when they can block it at every turn?
It’s like cheating at chess, and it’s also why so many grievances fail, because places like USP Tucson have figured out the loopholes and are exploiting them to prevent prisoners from their constitutional rights. It happens all the time, and nobody is doing anything about it.
I mean, take out my queen, rooks and bishops, and yeah, it’s hard for me to win too.
MIM(Prisons) adds: This is why comrades in United Struggle from Within initiated the campaigns “We Demand Our Grievances are Addressed.” Comrades developed petitions for many states as well as the Feds to appeal these issues to higher and outside authorities to try to bypass the problem described above. This campaign has included other tactics like filing group grievances and even taking other group actions when grievances are ignored. In many states comrades have called for an outside review board to address these complaints. But ultimately, there are no rights only power struggles, so leaving these issues in the hands of the state will only do so much. The solution to the problem is coming together as prisoners, as the oppressed and fighting for these rights every step of the way. That is why we must build peace and unity among prisoners to get grievances addressed.