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Book Review | Appealing to Justice: Prisoner Grievances, Rights, and Carceral Logic

Published onJun 01, 2017
Book Review | Appealing to Justice: Prisoner Grievances, Rights, and Carceral Logic

Kitty Calavita and Valerie Jenness. Appealing to Justice: Prisoner Grievances, Rights, and Carceral Logic. University of California Press, 2014; 264 pp.; ISBN: 9780520284180.


In Appealing to Justice, by Kitty Calavita and Valerie Jenness explain the grievance system of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) in detail. Grievance systems are the formal internal process by which inmates contest prison conditions. Federal law requires that prisoners fully exhaust the grievance system before their claims can be heard in court. Although there may be an assumption that justice exists in systems that are charged with upholding standards of safe and humane conditions within confinement facilities, the authors find the grievance process to be riddled with inefficiencies and inequalities.

CDCR provided the researchers with a list of over 16,000 inmate grievances filed in the fiscal year 2005-2006. This resulted in the qualitative analysis of 470 grievances, using a random sampling strategy of appellants. These qualitative results were enhanced by interviews of supervisory correctional staff members. The combination of data sources gave a complex perspective on the CDCR grievance system and the culture surrounding inmate protests. Two major findings of the work are (1) the CDCR is complicit in the systematic silencing of inmate protests via the grievance process, and (2) there is a fundamental conflict between the logic of inmate rights and the logic of punitive control.

The authors describe the various pressures staff persons face in processing the vast number of grievances submitted by inmates each week. To keep up, staff rely on “assembly-line routines” (p. 37) that lead to quick decisions. Oftentimes, these strategies do not take into account contextual factors that have dramatic consequences on the everyday life of individual prisoners. Departmental policies enforce these work management strategies which creates a culture in which inmate voices are silenced. Therefore, employees who engage in silencing processes feel justified by the institution itself. That is, “shifting responsibilities for their decisions onto rigid rules and polices gives decision makers not only cognitive certainty but a moral ‘alibi’” (p. 120), thereby perpetuating the systematic oppression of inmate rights and voices. In this way, the CDCR becomes complicit in an unjust grievance system. 

The conflicting logic between inmate rights and punitive control creates an inherent tension that, as discussed above, the current CDCR grievance system fails to alleviate. Inmate rights logically require their complaints to be addressed, at least sometimes. However, the authors describe that an inmate being victorious in their initial grievance and/or on appeal was an extremely rare occurrence. The logic of punitive control focuses on an individual convicted of wrongdoing to be the recipient of punishment rather than compromise. This is reflected in that fact that prisons hold massive amounts of power within the grievance system, serving as both the respondent to the accusation and the adjudicator in determining just outcomes. The authors describe a concession of sorts between these two conflicting logics where the inmate is forced to perceive victory in a different way. Inmate participation in the grievance system is a way in and of itself to combat wrongdoings. That is, for many inmates “standing up for one’s rights was the goal, not merely a means” (p. 78).

The content, approach and complexities of this book are, in my opinion, refreshing and welcome. Grievances are an under-studied part of the correctional system. To that end, studies that use multiple approaches to explore grievances are rare. For the authors to have this type of research relationship with the CDCR, especially on a topic that may be viewed as controversial and/or risky for the institution is a noteworthy feat. While it was revealed that one of the coauthors had a record of research with the CDCR as well as good connections with key decision-makers, the nuances of these relationships may have shaped some of the findings. Furthermore, the characteristics of the research team that was involved in the data collection were not discussed. Demographics such as gender, sex, age, and relevant experience have been found to influence how interviews are conducted, the way respondents feel, and how data are interpreted. The authors find the diversity of staff and inmates to be overshadowed by the homogeneity of their perceptions and actions, further reflecting the “power of these legal, structural, and institutional forces” (p. 128). However, the absence of racial demographic breakdown of participants does not mean it is neither present nor critical in discussions about the grievance system.

Using voices from inmates, corrections supervisors, and grievance system staff makes the findings of this book a major contribution to the literature. Although insightful, this work is missing the critical voice of those who have the most interaction with inmates: front-line correctional officers. The authors consider the decision to exclude rank-and-file officers from the study as a strategic research decision to “minimize the degree to which they could intentionally or unintentionally contaminate the field or otherwise undermine the research” (p. 196). However, the importance of hearing and understanding the place and voice of these staff persons is evident, particularly because front-line officers were discussed repeatedly throughout the text. For instance, correctional officers are referenced in some staff interviews as “knuckleheads” in need of training. Here, rather than placing fault with the actual officers, some staff blamed inadequate training. On the other hand some grievance staff consider correctional officers who commit misconduct to be poor reflections on the entire CDCR staff. No matter how blame is assigned, front-line correctional officers are an important part of the everyday conditions inmates face. The grievance system cannot be fully analyzed without taking the voices of correctional officers into account.

In all, this book continues an important yet infrequent discussion about the nuances of the correctional grievance system. The excellent research relationship the authors had with the CDCR allowed findings drawn from multiple sources. It is my hope that this conversation will continue by integrating the importance of diversity and the voices of front-line correctional staff in future analyses.

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