Advocates: Flawed Grievance Process Draws 'Iron Curtain' on Maine Prison Inmates

Jun 8, 2015

WARREN, Maine - Almost 20 years ago, Congress passed a law designed to cut down on what were deemed "frivolous and excessive" lawsuits by prisoners around the country. The Prison Litigation Reform Act Act requires prisoners to exhaust the internal grievance process before they can seek relief in federal court.

That means the grievance process itself has become a critical tool for prisoners who are being abused, who need access to medication or who want to voice concerns about policies and conditions.

At the Maine State Prison in Warren, some inmates say the grievance process is archaic, lacks transparency and appears to be rigged against them, and they've joined with advocates and attorneys in making a case that it's time for a overhaul. Susan Sharon has the first of two reports.

During the 1960's and 70's the U.S. Supreme Court issued a series of opinions that expanded the constitutional rights of prisoners in areas such as medical care and due process. At one point the Court declared - "There is no iron curtain drawn between the Constitution and the prisons of this country."

That means that just because they're incarcerated, prisoners don't give up all their rights at the prison door. But some say after the passage of the 1996 Prison Litigation Reform Act it's a different story.

"Unfortunately, we've seen that iron curtain descend," says attorney Eric Mehnert. Mehnert is currently representing two Maine inmates in a pair of separate lawsuits against prison staff and the Department of Corrections.  Mehnert calls the grievance process "Byzantine at best."

"There are a lot of challenges with prisoners trying to comply with rules that are used against them," he says. Mehnert says one example is the case of Renardo Williams. Williams has claimed that a former Maine State Prison captain handcuffed him and assaulted him. Following the assault, which was reported by another guard, Williams was transferred to another facility in Maine. Mehnert says it was ostensibly for his own safety.

But when he was then put on a special watch list, subject to heightened security measures, including increased searches and interference with his mail, Williams tried to file a grievance. He requested a grievance form, filled it out and waited.

"When he asked what happened to his grievance they told him that the grievance was not on the right form. He said, 'You gave me the form. Give me the right form!' He re-filed the grievance and they said, 'Oh no, you filed your grievance too late.' "

Despite the dismissal of the grievance, Cptn. David Cutler was charged criminally for the attack on Williams. He was acquitted by a jury earlier this year. Williams, who is black, also filed a federal lawsuit.
"I think that case probably highlights one of the greatest concerns in MSP, which is racism in the prison," he says, "and that if you are an individual of color there are disparate disciplinary rules for you than there are for others."

Because of the pending litigation, Department of Corrections officials declined to be interviewed for this story. But in March they did grant permission for an interview at the Maine State Prison with several leaders of the NAACP's prison chapter, who also have concerns about treatment of inmates of color as well as the grievance process for all prisoners in general.

Chapter Vice President Shaun Libby says the system appears to be stacked against the inmates. "We just see from our end a lot of dismissals. There seems to be a lot more roadblocks that they can just easily dismiss something and then they don't give you a thorough reasoning why. It's usually just a sentence and a checkbox and it says, 'This is why your grievance was dismissed.' "

Libby says the NAACP has been unable to find out exactly how many grievances are accepted, let alone affirmed. MPBN is also awaiting results of a similar request for information. But the Department did recently share about six months of grievance data from the Maine State Prison with several advocacy groups. Grainne Dunne of the ACLU of Maine says what it shows is that half of all grievances are dismissed outright.

"And of the grievances that were accepted, that weren't dismissed,  only a very small percentage of them were later accepted, or the subject of the grievance was substantiated," Dunne says.

Dunne says the ACLU is troubled by the lack of transparency and external review. So is inmate Foster Bates. "No one has ever came {sic} to me and asked me, or asked the witnesses that I put in the grievance, did this actually take place?"

Bates is a member of the NAACP's Maine State Prison Chapter. He's been incarcerated for 13 years and says he's filed several of his own grievances and helped other prisoners file them, too. "I have never seen any investigation on any grievance that I've filed,"

"Do you know anybody who's ever had an investigation?" I ask.

"None. None," Bates says.

There are three levels to the grievance process, which includes a grievance review officer, the warden and the corrections commissioner, essentially a closed loop system that prisoners say is inherently unfair. Bates says clearing any of the levels takes skill and timing.

At the first level, if the grievance review officer determines the grievance is not grievable, frivolous in nature or if there has been obvious abuse of the process by a prisoner, the officer is directed to dismiss it.

But those terms are not defined. And Bates says, for prisoners who can't read or write well, just filling out the form can be especially challenging.

"They give you nine lines. And if you can't fit your complaint within nine lines and you happen to use the bottom of the page or just outside the square - it's kind of like set up in a square - if you go outside that square that gives them the reason to dismiss the grievance," he says.

Once an issue is dismissed it can't be grieved again. In addition, an inmate has five days to get the appropriate supervisor to sign off on a grievance. And if you can't get in touch with the supervisor, prisoners say the grievance is automatically dismissed.

"I once had a deputy warden tell me that policy was a rule for me but only a guide for him," says Joseph Jackson. Jackson is a former Maine State Prison inmate who co-founded the NAACP prison chapter and is now the coordinator of the Maine Prisoner Advocacy Coalition. He sees deep flaws in the grievance process.

"And it's also the only way for a prisoner to get his issue, complaint, moved into court," he says. "And that's one of the problems, is that the department is using all these mechanisms and means to try to restrict these prisoners from access to the court."

"When it's a problem we hear from the inmates. And we haven't gotten - I mean it's been more than a year since the board has received a letter on the grievance procedures or policy," says Jon Wilson.

Wilson is the former chair of the Maine State Prison's Board of Visitors, a citizens' advisory committee that provides oversight of prison matters. Wilson says he has complete confidence in Maine State Prison Warden Rodney Bouffard and in the current system.

"You know the idea of basically ignoring somebody's concern just because he's an inmate or anything like that is the farthest thing from what Warden Bouffard would do," Wilson says. "I mean, you know, I'm biased. I have just have tremendous admiration and respect for him."

Prisoners say all they're asking for is some accountability in the grievance process. They say they understand the concern prison staff may have about filing of excess and petty grievances. But they say more transparency will go a long way toward building trust within the walls of the Maine State Prison and improving outcomes for the majority of inmates who will someday be released.

Tomorrow, in part two of our report, we'll take a look at what prisoners and advocates say could be done to improve the system.