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Dispatches from the Inside: A prisoner's take on filing grievances

California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation

Richard Gilliam is incarcerated at San Quentin State Prison. 

Schadenfreude: To take delight or pleasure in another's discomfort or pain.

With imminent budget cuts, pay decreases, and layoffs looming for the California Department of Corrections, there has been a noticeable increase in harassment and vexatious behavior by some prison guards towards prisoners under their authority.

If asked about this, corrections officials deny this is the case, and the general public remains unaware as to the day-to-day abuses of prison life. It's only when some scandal is exposed that malfeasance and corruption endemic to insulated bureaucracies enter into public consciousness.

I've commented before about the prison appeals process. It's touted as “the way” for inmates to resolve their grievances, but there is a darker side to this supposed procedural safeguard of prisoners' rights. Sure, there's a process in place to contest official action that an inmate feels is unfair, unwarranted or extrajudicial, but every prisoner knows that by filing that grievance he or she runs the risk of harassment.

On the California Department of Corrections’ grievance form, the 602, it states that "no reprisals will be taken for using the appeals process." But the reality is a little different.

Administrative officials turn a blind eye to the practice of dissuasion and harassment in the form of frequent and excessive locker searches, confiscation and loss of approved personal property, and the wanton destruction of irreplaceable items such as family photographs. These are provocative tactics, carried out in order to garner an emotional response. Once an inmate becomes irate, the use of force is justified and the legal and punitive measures at the department's disposal are brought to bear against a prisoner who may have just been seeking redress for a minor wrong. The result is that most inmates accept the everyday humiliation and abuse some guards enjoy dishing out, rather than risk challenging such abuse and instigating even more.

It is said that absolute power corrupts absolutely – and within a prison's walls those in authority wield almost absolute power. Prisoners have an apt analogy for this sort of treatment: put a dog in a cage and poke him with a stick, rather than bestow basic kindness and guidance. Will he be better or worse when you set him free from that cage?

Richard Gilliam