Thursday, February 12, 2015

Good Grievance, Charlie Brown

By Steve Bartholomew

The grievance process was first instituted in Washington State prisons about 35 years ago as a way for prisoners to seek redress that didn't involve hostages. Those were different times, the yard run by a breed of prisoner now extinct. In the decades since the last of the Big Riots, the administration has forgotten that at the heart of such revolt was a dissatisfaction so immense that men were willing to risk everything to change it. But desperation isn't as quantifiable as death tolls, which have been reduced into data sets, the sanitized souvenirs of violence that now seem to have occurred in a vacuum. And so, as the threat of violent demonstration declines, we find ourselves left with a pale and toothless version of its alternative.

I try to lessen the disappointment and frustration in my life as much as possible by not fostering unrealistic expectations, so I do not file grievances, as a rule. Attempts to constrain the beast from within its belly usually end up being as quixotic as competing with a windmill in a face-slapping contest. This may sound like an overstatement, the defeatist posturing of an embittered prisoner, but upon examination it proves pragmatic. You see, a few months ago I did have occasion to file a grievance, my first in years, and the result illustrates my point.

We were to have a rare event called a Diversity Fair (which doesn't look much like any fair you might recognize). For this one day per year, each race is permitted to display upon a table various items representing aspects of their heritage: usually artwork or pictures of some prohibited tradition. The administration figures that if we understand one another's cultural backgrounds better, we will hate less. I agree with the theory, so I am a member of the Diversity Committee, The small group of prisoners who organize these events. 

As we set up the tables that morning, we watched the sky work up an attitude, dark clouds coming in low and menacing. There was a fifteen-minute cloudburst. This prison is in a convergence zone about twenty miles north of Seattle, so our weather is famously moody. But the boss cancelled the event, blaming inclement weather even as the cloud cover broke. 

Our volunteer sponsors are free people who come to prison on purpose to make our lives less tedious in meaningful ways. Regina, our European culture sponsor, had traveled a great distance to attend, and now would have to leave. Since she had no working car, she would have to wait a couple hours in front of the prison for her ride to return.

As she was heading toward the corridor that leads to the free world, and was maybe 50 feet from where I was standing, I called out to her another apology and a farewell. She responded and then a guard parroted her from behind another fence, his voice a mocking falsetto. I know she heard it. We all did.

When guards misbehave or break their own policy, you have two choices: accept it, or do something. By accepting it, you relinquish your right to comment on it, even to another prisoner--in essence, you have no standing. I certainly do not want to hear someone complain who is unwilling to act. If you choose to do something, you have two new choices. If you respond directly, in the moment--either physically or verbally--the episode is likely to play out in only so many ways, none of which you will like. And a physical altercation only leads to years in solitary for you, and six months paid leave for the guard, who now has an entertaining story he can embellish at the tavern.

The other option is to utilize the prison's own process against them and file a grievance. A valid question to ask when deciding whether to file is: would this guard infract me for a minor offense, say, giving food to another hungry prisoner? Even though the answer in this case was yes, I still likely would have accepted the guard's mockery, had it been directed at me. Sad though it may sound, I accept too much because I’ve grown used to accepting much. So after some thought and thoroughly discussing it with a friend, I filed a staff misconduct grievance. I was the only one with standing to do so, since the incident happened during my interaction with our sponsor.

I was interviewed at great length by the grievance coordinator, his appropriately disapproving interjections made while scribbling in an outraged manner along the margins of his copy of my grievance. He assured me he was “going after them," and that "this process is the only way to do so;" that "higher-ups were already notified," and so forth. He had the no-nonsense air of someone empathetic to the indignity suffered by Regina, placing me squarely beside him in what had become our Us-versus-Them battle, a tactic that momentarily confused my sense of who was the adversary of whom. I was not quite deluded enough to believe I'd made a correctional comrade, but foolishly, I believed I could feel the beast recoiling, just a little.

A few days later I was interviewed again, this time by the shift lieutenant. A large and imposing black man, his features are permanently composed in such a way as to affect your mental sphincter much like the ratcheting of handcuffs. He asked me to tell him "my version of events," his flexed eyes unblinking, searching my face for contraband. He asked only one question after I finished: whether I had seen the officers in question doing a rain dance. When I said that I had in fact seen them dancing around weirdly after the cloudburst but wouldn't know a rain dance lf I saw one, he asked why I had not included this detail in my grievance. I said, "L.T., I feel like you barely believe me as it is." He stopped scrutinizing my face parts long enough to jot this down.

After several weeks, an envelope arrived at my bars. Upon opening it, my inner reading voice quickly began emulating Charlie Brown's teacher: "After interviewing all parties involved, your complaint was supported wah wahwah wahwah wah. Wahwah."

Technically, this goes in the W column--but what does winning actually mean, aside from some bureauspeak scratched onto a triplicate form? As a remedy, I asked for an apology—not to me, but to Regina. She did not get one. Nor was there any detectable change in either guard's circumstance. They still work the yard and generally conduct themselves no differently, except now I get a stink-eye once in a while when I pass them on the track. Maybe someone got a Post-it note stuck to their central file, but is this even worth the time I spent grieving my heart out in writing, and out loud in the shift office? (NOT a purely rhetorical question, since I do make $.42 per hour.)

As a prisoner, your expectation is that if you make a spectacle, your life--such as it is--will capsize. You will be tucked away in solitary for an indeterminate span of time, and transferred--usually to a prison as far from your family as possible. Since we incur real consequences for our misconduct, especially personally offensive behavior, we foolishly believe that the inverse would be true, or at least possible. Over time we come to realize this is another of those intuitive fallacies, like the assumptions you make about the physical world until you read what Mr. Einstein had to say about how things really work.

A year ago, the heat became stuck wide open in another unit. Sweat-stained grievances choked the collection box. In particular, one prisoner filed emergency grievances, saying that the heat was making his chest hurt. He was in distress. They answered by telling him to drink more water, that they had checked the temperature with one of those digital guns (at 3AM on the lowest of four tiers, which they didn't factor in), and it was "as per policy within reasonable wahwahwah wah wah." After a week or so of the extreme heat, Jerry Jamison died on his bunk. He was 49 years old. The TV news said he lay there for approximately 37 hours before someone noticed the growing pile of mail on his legs--where it lands when they toss it through the bars. He was in prison for a drug offense and was due to be released this year to his children and new wife.

Rather than acknowledge wrongdoing in the mismanagement of our living conditions--which would be the first step in preventing a recurrence—the prison chose to generate yet another New Policy. What change in operations was implemented to address the tragedy surrounding Jerry's death? Why, to turn on the cell lights at 3AM, of course. I’m taking a class on symbolic logic, but there‘s no chapter in the book describing how to derive that conclusion from the premises given here.

I've even tried holding my breath when they go by at 3, to see if they're checking for signs of life. I should be grateful for the lackadaisy I had predicted. Mouth to mouth can be awkward when you're faking it.

In Washington State, everything you need to know about what is considered non-grievable is printed on the backs of the grievance forms. If that formidable list is not enough to discourage you, there is a grievance coordinator at every prison, whose job is either to dissuade you by convincing you that your grievance is a dud, or to tell you how to rewrite it, in which case it usually becomes "accepted." This nominal approval of your complaint is not unlike considering your prayer heard, or believing that Santa received your request for a puppy. Your wishfulness in all three processes will vastly outweigh any effect greater than whatever would have happened anyway. The exceptions are few and, like wishes in fairy tales, prone to backfire.

In the 16 years or so that I've spent in prison, my experience with the grievance system has been less than empowering, although the consistent quality of results has instilled in me a dour sort of faith in the process. As a well-worn example, once upon a time the prison menu included pork chops, breakfast on certain days would see real-ish sausages on the tray, and ham existed. There was a non-pork line in the chowhall for those not so inclined. But the meats were not segregated enough for the Muslims. Evidently, the very existence of pork offends the sensibilities of the deity supposed to have created it. They grieved until it became a substance so prohibited as to become unknowable, like dark matter or two-ply. This won the Muslims fewer popularity points in here than the Taliban and Al Qaeda combined. (Our worldview is shamefully circumscribed.)

In prison, you rarely recognize the good old days while they're still nowadays. I remember when we were served ice cream once a month, a landmark dessert with predictably rotating flavors, a way to gauge the passing of months that was more gratifying than the calendar page ritual. To lament such a loss may sound trifling to some, but in a world where all your experiences are grayed and "change" only means "worsen," any minor event worth looking forward to becomes exalted. If you tasted rocky road, your mind could smile along with your taste buds, satisfied that another half year had passed. But someone grieved the size of their scoop as compared to someone else's, and so the boss subtracted ice cream from our reality. Similar scenarios unfolded with the cookies made in the prison bakery, hand-chalk on the weight pile, etc. So you can see how grieving by the pen can lead to grieving of the heart.

The pen may indeed be mightier than the sword, but it's also more dangerous to wave around in a tight space. If you are persuasive, or at least tenacious in your grieving, they may teach you what real grief is all about. Retaliation is the silent weapon in what amounts to a cold war fought at the level of daily routines. The shot across your bow comes in the form of a cluster of "suspicious" cell searches, where they repeatedly burrow through your every belonging in a manner befitting an archeologist on meth, and then confiscate what they guess are your choicest possessions: "evidence" you may or may not ever see again.

Often times, your things are ruined by "incidental" damage incurred in the mystery-place they call Chain of Evidence. Your lotion seemed furtive, you may find out later, a possible security threat lurking within it. Therefore, it needed to be poured out, the opened bottle stored in the same labeled Ziploc as your family photos. If you persist after that, they might change your address. You will be told to pack your stuff, but however much you have is deemed excessive. They go through it yet again, while you watch helplessly. Difficult decisions must be made at this point about which of your things will accompany you to your next stop. Not to worry--the deciding will be done for you, not by you, a display of departmental thoughtfulness that may make you water up. You are taken aback that someone would be so concerned with saving you the hassle of carting all those things around, cluttering up the space beneath your prison bunk.

The one choice left to you is whether you would prefer to send your former property out at your expense, or perhaps donate it to an unnamed charity. You can expect to be on the next chain, the transport bus on which everyone wears the eponymous shackles, waist to wrist to ankle, just like in the movies. There is always somewhere worse than where you are, and that's where you're going. All these actions fit neatly beneath the umbrella of "institutional need," which makes them immune from those meddling judges and their pesky injunctions. 

Where Constitutional rights are involved, there had better be a concerted effort, a sort of class action grieving that predicates suing. The lone squeaky wheel will squeak right on down the road. Before the Muslims in this state were able to banish our pork, the first few who tried grieving the infidel meat were given extended diesel therapy. This is where you tour the state on chain buses, one after another, for months, spending less than a week at any one prison. Most of your meals are peanut butter sandwiches (no jelly): a penalogical redress, you might say, of religious grievances regarding the provenance of objectionable meat patties.

I recently found out that one of the warden‘s duties is to report periodically to headquarters on prisoner morale. Evidently, the presumption is that a negative correlation exists between the frequency of grievances and our emotional well-being. My humanity fluttered at the implications. Could it be, I wondered, that the theatrics of the grievance coordinator and friends are really part of a show staged for the benefit of some benevolent bureaucrat in the state capitol? A daring leap, to suggest the ivory-towered ones care about the happiness of us, the ones gun-towered over. Might the Great and Powerful have an eye toward balancing institutional security with my insecurities? Are they truly interested in the precise angular degree of my navel gazing? 

After consulting my logic instructor and running some truth-tables and conditional proofs on the chalkboard, we decided the answer to all my questions is a resounding no. The only valid conclusion for the given premises is that if headquarters were truly concerned about morale, then it follows that they would bring back ice cream.

Steve Bartholomew 978300
P.O. Box 777
Monroe, WA 98272-0777

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