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Where Change Starts: The Grievance Process is Necessary

Written by: Billy Sellars

Author of: Injustice for All

After spending any length of time serving a sentence in the Department of Corrections, one learns that the grievance process is an important factor when it comes to making change. Of course, there are times when this process is slow in receiving a desired result. There are also times when the issue you are filing a grievance on is hindered by that state’s policy or the interpretation of that policy by the institution. Although the issues you may be grieving are legitimate, it sometimes seems as if this slow-going process created by the government is meant to create more problems than it actually solves. Or so we may think.

The truth is that this system is meant to work and it actually does when you follow the correct procedures in filing timely and legitimate grievances. There are many inmates who become discouraged at the progression of these issues that they file, mainly because it seems like the system is always against those who are incarcerated. They may have filed about something they felt was an issue within the institution in which they live, only to be denied at the first and second levels of the grievance process. They may follow the guidelines of the process but may be denied for any number or reasons, depending on what issue they may feel needs to be addressed. I admit that it can be disheartening at times, as I have also found that this process can be daunting and irritating. But just because something is difficult to see instant results doesn’t mean that one shouldn’t make the effort in trying to create change.

It's crucial to acknowledge the potential consequences of not utilizing the grievance process. When we choose not to file grievances against policy violations or institutional issues, we unintentionally allow the system to worsen. Each unaddressed concern becomes a missed opportunity for improvement. Without our active participation, the corrections system might continue its downward trajectory, impacting not only us but also countless others who are confined. By taking a stand and making our voices heard through the grievance process, we have the chance to hold the system accountable and make a positive difference.

There are guidelines for the grievance process, which can be found in each department’s individual policy. It is important to be clear and concise, quoting the policy you find has been violated or you believe to be misinterpreted by the institution. Once you take the time to adequately explain and describe the issues you have found, be sure to take your time while writing; if you can, use a typewriter and a dictionary to ensure you are making sense and the grievance can be read. Grievance Officers can and will deny a grievance if they are unable to read or understand what is being grieved. If you do not follow the process, the grievance will be denied because you didn’t follow procedure and you will be asked to begin the process over again. As I’ve said, it can be frustrating. Though when we use the policy correctly, we usually see positive results.

I have been an advocate of the grievance process since I have watched it work first-hand in the favor of the population. After the COVID Pandemic, our institution was refusing to allow visitors in, claiming that the virus could be spread to inmates through contact with our families. The problem I made clear was that the inmates in the institution were contracting the COVID virus through the officers entering the institution on a daily basis. At the height of the pandemic, officers were calling out sick and shortly after, the whole institution would go on quarantine lockdown. Myself, along with several other men, grieved this issue. It took a few months, following through to the second step of the grievance process, but we eventually were able to have visits again. Granted, we are still separated by a glass cubicle where it is extremely difficult to hear and our time with our families is limited to 2-hour blocks, but this alone was proof that the process works. We are currently grieving the use of the booths, as now the excuse being used by the institution is the introduction of contraband through visitation.

I said that the process works and it does. There will be times when you think an issue isn’t worth grieving because you don’t feel like anything will be done about it. I want to encourage anyone who may have had a bad experience with it to continue fighting all legitimate policy issues, or issues within your institution that need to be rectified. It may take time but that’s all some of us have. You never know what type of change can be made unless you take the first step in creating a better environment.

To all the families of incarcerated men and women out there, I want to share a message of encouragement and empowerment. I’ve personally experienced the impact of the grievance process within the Department of Corrections, and I can attest to its effectiveness in creating positive change. I understand that it might seem discouraging at times, as if the system is against us. But let’s not forget that change is possible when we follow the proper procedures and advocate for our rights. If you notice policy violations or issues within the institution affecting your family member, ask them to consider taking that step to file a grievance. It might be frustrating, and you might wonder if it's worth the effort, but I assure you that the process can yield results. By clearly stating the problems, referencing policies, and persisting through the process, you can contribute to making the correctional environment better for your loved ones and everyone else. Remember, change takes time, but the first step toward improvement begins with your determination to create a positive impact.

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