725.1 Inside the pyramid of disputes: Naming problems and filing grievances in California prisons

Saturday, August 4, 2012: 12:30 PM
Faculty of Economics, TBA
Valerie JENNESS , Criminology, Law and Society, University of California, Irvine, Irvine, CA
Kitty CALAVITA , Criminology, Law and Society, University of California, Irvine, Irvine, CA
Literature on disputing and legal mobilization suggests that stigmatized, self-blaming, and/or vulnerable populations often face insurmountable barriers to naming a situation as injurious and claiming redress, even in the face of seemingly dramatic harms. Contrary to this literature, prisoners in the United States—among the most stigmatized and vulnerable of populations—file tens of thousands of grievances annually to contest the conditions of their confinement. To explore this apparent paradox, we draw on an unprecedented data set comprised of face-to-face interviews with a random sample of 120 men incarcerated in three California prisons. These data, supplemented with a random sample of 459 inmate grievances, interviews with prison staff, and official data, reveal that almost all of these prisoners are willing and able to name problems, and almost three-quarters of them have filed at least one grievance. While some prisoners expressed self-blame for their incarceration and most of them said there were staff reprisals for filing a grievance, the majority overcame these potential impediments to filing. We argue that the institutional context of prison—a total institution in which law is a hyper-visible organizing force—may enhance this form of legal mobilization by prisoners, trumping the very social and psychological factors that that context otherwise produces and that in other populations tamp down claimsmaking. However, these men are by no means immune to the pressures of the prison context. While staff disrespect was named frequently as a leading problem in prison, grievances against staff—a category of appeals that these prisoners reported triggers the most retaliation—were relatively rare. In concluding, we note that the U.S. Supreme Court recently found California prisons violate the 8th Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment, a finding that reveals the inadequacy of the inmate appeals system despite prisoners’ repeated efforts to hold the State accountable.