Grievance System Failing Prison Inmates

Grievance System Failing Prison Inmates
Attica Prison Riot

The system designed to serve as an early warning system for prisoners reporting abuse, dangerous conditions and inadequate medical care is failing. A report by ProPublica and WBEZ shows that the 15 largest prisons in Illinois lacked data over the number of grievances filed by inmates and their complaints’ resolution.

The news organizations sought five years of data. Less than half of the penal institutions could provide information with sufficient data for analysis. Years of data were missing from some prisons.

Illinois Pays Millions In Settlements

In Illinois, the grievance system has failed so miserably that the state has paid out millions in settlements to inmates harmed when the concerns raised through grievances were ignored. For instance, a Statesville Correctional Center inmate filed a grievance stating roaches were climbing all over him while he was sleeping.

The complaint also stated he suffered from extreme pain in his ear, along with a persistent crackling noise. The staff did nothing about the issues brought up in the grievance. Two weeks after the filing, medical personnel removed an insect from his ear. The prisoner filed a lawsuit, and while the state denied wrongdoing, the case was eventually settled for $12,500.

Another inmate received a $70,000 settlement after numerous grievances regarding lack of medical care were denied. At one point, he was in such horrific pain that men in cells nearby were calling on guards to help him. A kidney stone had lodged in his penis, making urination impossible.

When the corrections officers finally took him to the medical office, the doctor attempted to remove the stone from the tip of his penis via a hemostat. The attempt failed, but the inmate was not taken to the hospital for another six hours. When he returned to the prison, he filed more grievances regarding his abysmal medical care. Those grievances were also denied.

Attica, Attica, Attica

A formal grievance system grew out of the Attica prison uprising in 1971, probably the best-known and deadliest of such an uprising in American history. For four days in September, inmates took over the maximum-security prison near Buffalo, New York.

When it was over, 43 people were dead after state police and prison officials launched a raid ending in disaster. Although Attica was the most famous of these events, other prison standoffs occurred in its wake. The U.S. Department of Justice determined that a lack of a grievance system contributed to prison unrest since inmates had no other way of making authorities aware of their conditions.

The lack of a grievance system was not the only problem. During the 1970s, prisoners filed so many civil rights lawsuits in federal court that such litigation made up one out of every 20 federal lawsuits filed.

The Prison Litigation Reform Act

In 1996, Congress passed the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA). Under PLRA, no action “shall be brought with respect to prison conditions …by a prisoner confined in any jail, prison, or other correctional facility until such administrative remedies as are available are exhausted.” The PLRA’s purpose was the reduction of frivolous lawsuits, while also ensuring more qualified lawsuits are brought forward.

That was the idea, at least. In practice, PLRA made a bad situation worse. Prison authorities rejected grievances due to small administrative or technical errors, such as using the wrong color of ink. In Illinois, it appears efforts were made to make the grievance filing procedure as cumbersome and complicated as possible. Deadlines for filing were shortened, issues brought up in a grievance were not addressed, and many grievances simply disappeared.

In 2011 at Lincoln Correctional Center, 200 female inmates were taken out of their housing unit and strip-searched. According to a lawsuit filed by the inmates, the women had to spread their vaginas and buttock in full view of male staff. Some of the corrections officers made derogatory comments about their bodies.

Menstruating women had to remove tampons and bleed on themselves while waiting for their strip search. Many of the women filed grievances –but an odd thing happened. Not one of these grievances was ever acknowledged by the prison’s administrators. The administrators later said they could not find any of these grievances. They did say they would make efforts to “improve tracking.”

Only 5 Percent Consider System Effective

In a 2019 survey, only 5 percent of Illinois state prisoners thought the grievance system was effective. Just 13 percent said they would feel comfortable filing a grievance. Fear of retaliation was the major reason the overwhelming majority of inmates would not consider filing a grievance.

The solution? In other states, it is more transparency. New York maintains a database tracking staff named in abuse claims. Illinois does not even track grievances by the name of the corrections officer, even though mistreatment by staff is one of the biggest grievance complaints. The system needs a thorough overhaul, and better data collection is critical.

Failure to provide adequate medical care to inmates is negligent, and you have a right to sue for compensation. If you or a loved one needed medical care, didn’t receive it, and that led to harm or death, you can file a medical negligence or wrongful death claim.

Learn Your Rights and Medical Neglect Lawsuit Options 866.836.4684


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