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Appealing to Justice

Appealing to Justice: Prisoner Grievances, Rights, and Carceral Logic

Kitty Calavita
Valerie Jenness
Copyright Date: 2015
Edition: 1
Pages: 264
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  • Book Info
    Appealing to Justice
    Book Description:

    Having gained unique access to California prisoners and corrections officials and to thousands of prisoners' written grievances and institutional responses, Kitty Calavita and Valerie Jenness take us inside one of the most significant, yet largely invisible, institutions in the United States. Drawing on sometimes startlingly candid interviews with prisoners and prison staff, as well as on official records, the authors walk us through the byzantine grievance process, which begins with prisoners filing claims and ends after four levels of review, with corrections officials usually denying requests for remedies.Appealing to Justiceis both an unprecedented study of disputing in an extremely asymmetrical setting and a rare glimpse of daily life inside this most closed of institutions. Quoting extensively from their interviews with prisoners and officials, the authors give voice to those who are almost never heard from. These voices unsettle conventional wisdoms within the sociological literature-for example, about the reluctance of vulnerable and/or stigmatized populations to name injuries and file claims, and about the relentlessly adversarial subjectivities of prisoners and correctional officials-and they do so with striking poignancy. Ultimately,Appealing to Justicereveals a system fraught with impediments and dilemmas, which delivers neither justice, nor efficiency, nor constitutional conditions of confinement.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-95983-5
    Subjects: Sociology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. List of Tables
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xi-xiv)
  5. CHAPTER 1 Introduction: Rights, Captivity, and Disputing behind Bars
    (pp. 1-23)

    In 2006, James Williams¹ lodged a grievance with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR), citing temperatures of 114 degrees in the overcrowded concrete cells of the desert prison where he was held. It was “cruel and unusual punishment,” he wrote, to house people in these overheated cubicles where the only ventilation came from scorching metal vents on the roof. He ended by noting that even the prison dog kennels were air-conditioned. The CDCR denied his appeal.² Tens of thousands of prisoners like Williams file grievances in California’s thirty-three prisons every year, with the vast majority denied by prison...

  6. CHAPTER 2. “Needles,” “Haystacks,” and “Dead Watchdogs”: The Prison Litigation Reform Act and the Inmate Grievance System in California
    (pp. 24-48)

    The 1960s and 1970s saw the emergence of an active prisoner rights movement in the United States that focused on improving the conditions of confinement as well as initiating large-scale social change outside of prison. Prisoner rights activism was an integral part of the broader nexus of social movements that gained momentum in the second half of the twentieth century. Indicative of the perceived power of this movement, departments of corrections across the United States set up internal grievance systems to address the threat of politically motivated riots and other prison management problems.¹

    Spearheaded by Black Muslim prisoners, “the radical...

  7. CHAPTER 3. Naming, Blaming, and Claiming in an Uncommon Place of Law
    (pp. 49-79)

    Tens of thousands of California prisoners file grievances annually, and as we saw in the last chapter, they file on a wide range of issues. In this chapter, we draw on our interviews with prisoners to explore how they talk about their problems and the grievances they file, as well as their overall perceptions of the appeals system. A central focus is on the relationship between what they tell us their problems are on one hand, and what they report their grievances are about on the other. In other words, we look here not only at their grievances but at...

  8. CHAPTER 4 Prisoners’ Counternarratives: “This Is a Prison and It’s Not Disneyland”
    (pp. 80-96)

    As we have seen, these prisoners name many problems, and most have filed grievances about issues ranging from the prison facilities, medical care, and staff disrespect to the appeals process itself. Some of what they told us about their problems and grievances aligns with what is found in the academic literature as well as government reports that provide critiques of the prison system in California and elsewhere. They are consistent too with an adversarial relationship between prisoners and those who imprison them in what the courts have deemed overcrowded and unconstitutional conditions. In some sense, then, the tenor of their...

  9. CHAPTER 5 “Narcissists,” “Liars,” Process, and Paper: The Dilemmas and Solutions of Grievance Handlers
    (pp. 97-129)

    The grievances that California prisoners file initiate a process of administrative engagement with the CDCR officials charged with running the prisons that house and control them. This engagement creates considerable work for corrections officials, as line officers, prison appeals coordinators, deputy wardens and wardens, and the chief of inmate appeals and staff in Sacramento must manage and respond to the flood of grievances. We turn our attention now to these institutional actors, their perceptions of prisoners and the grievance system, and their grievance response practices. Serving as both respondent and adjudicator, the CDCR has virtually unilateral power to determine the...

  10. CHAPTER 6 Administrative Consistency, Downstream Consequences, and “Knuckleheads”
    (pp. 130-149)

    These corrections officials use a rhetoric of “rules and policy” to justify their decisions, but as we saw in the last chapter, there are vast terrains of exception, and rules are often of little practical use in weighing evidence. In deciding “the relevant ‘facts’ or ‘situation’ to which specific rules apply” (Emerson and Paley 1992, 231) and interpreting the kind of he said/she said statements on which many grievances turn, these CDCR staff necessarily exercise substantial discretion. Despite this extensive discretion and the complexity of many grievances, these appeals handlers achieve remarkable consistency across responders and levels of review.


  11. CHAPTER 7 Grievance Narratives as Frames of Meaning, Profiles of Power
    (pp. 150-181)

    Previous chapters have focused primarily on our interviews with prisoners and CDCR officials as windows into prison life and lenses through which to understand the sometimes complex institutional processes and power dynamics involved in disputing on this highly uneven terrain. In this chapter, we return to our sample of specific grievances filed by California prisoners, which include the official responses they received. Combined with our interview data, these written grievances reveal a great deal about how people in different institutional locations perceive law and engage in legal practices, and how these perceptions and practices shift with changes in venue and...

  12. CHAPTER 8 Conclusion
    (pp. 182-194)

    This is a book about prisons in California at a particular historical moment and about the implications of that institutional context and sociohistorical moment for disputing and more generally for the attitudes and practices of those inside, both captives and captors. The power of institutional context beyond the particulars of any individual is a persistent theme throughout. We began by noting the paradox that these prisoners—among the most stigmatized and vulnerable of populations—name problems and claim redress far beyond what one might expect from the literature on disputing and legal mobilization. While not contesting the general pattern reported...

  13. APPENDIX A: Procedures for Interviews with Prisoners
    (pp. 195-197)
  14. APPENDIX B: Procedures for Interviews with CDCR Personnel
    (pp. 198-199)
  15. APPENDIX C: Coding the Sample of Grievances
    (pp. 200-202)
  16. Cases
    (pp. 203-204)
  17. Notes
    (pp. 205-222)
  18. References
    (pp. 223-236)
  19. Index
    (pp. 237-247)