City jail grievance system broken, inmates, advocates say

Suddenly and inexplicably one August night in 2011, the steel door of Steven Gabriel's jail cell at the Baltimore City Detention Center was unlocked and opened, according to documents he filed in state and federal court. Someone with a "flip-out pocket knife" stabbed him multiple times, he wrote, and he bled in his cell for several hours before being rushed to the hospital.

In two civil lawsuits demanding compensation for his injuries, Gabriel, 24, has placed blame squarely on the corrections officers overseeing his unit, saying only they could have unlocked his cell. He alleged in a federal court filing in March that "BCDC has a reputation of corruption in all departments" and that officers worked to suppress inmates' complaints of mistreatment.

The allegations originated months before 13 corrections officers were indicted on federal charges and accused of working with a dozen gang-affiliated inmates and street associates to peddle drugs and launder money inside the jail.

Civil liberties advocates say Gabriel's case and others like it highlight the inadequacy of the inmate grievance process — an issue that has historically been ignored and is being de-emphasized as officials scramble to solve problems at the jail.

Grievances should be a valuable tool for uncovering corruption, attorneys and corrections experts say. Indeed, grievances filed at the jail outlined problems that were later noted in the federal indictments — leading some to wonder whether officials had missed an early opportunity to address alleged corruption. The systems can be misused by corrections officers and jail officials, smothering inmate complaints as they arise regardless of their merit, experts say.

"Depending on what the agency puts into the process, it can be good, it can be less than perfect, or it can be really, really bad," said Arnett Gaston, a retired criminology professor at the University of Maryland who served in top corrections positions over four decades in New York and Maryland.

Inmates at the Baltimore jail, who are often sent there to await trial, have raised complaints about major medical ailments, vicious attacks and examples of officers' misdeeds for years, but have received insufficient attention from officials, advocates say. Problems with the grievance process also limit inmates' ability to pursue court remedies, said David Rocah, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland, who calls the process "a complete joke and fiasco."

But such systems have been narrowly drawn nationwide to prevent endless litigation from inmates and prisoners. In the mid-1990s, as federal and state legislators sought a solution, news reports highlighted lawsuits that had been filed over bad haircuts, tight underwear and broken cookies.

Rick Binetti, a spokesman for the state corrections department, said jail officials strongly disagree with the ACLU's accusations. Statistics show declining incidents of inmate emergency room visits, assaults and HIV infections in recent years — contradicting advocates' claims that the current process endangers inmates, he said.

Most Maryland correctional facilities follow grievance standards set by the American Correctional Association. The state-run jail's grievance process does not, but it will meet those standards by August, he said.

The process is "clearly communicated to all inmates in the system. The directives are in every inmate library," Binetti said. He disputed certain allegations that Gabriel has made in court filings but said he could not comment on the stabbing or the case.

A national issue

The jail's grievance process is based in part on the federal Prison Litigation Reform Act, which went into effect in 1996, and the state's comparable Prisoner Litigation Act of 1997, which require inmates to pursue administrative remedies before filing lawsuits. The system was developed to limit judicial review and discourage inmates from filing frivolous court claims.

Last year, 5,217 grievances were filed with the Baltimore jail's grievance office, which is staffed by four officers, Binetti said. That does not include complaints that are resolved by supervisory staff at the unit level, he said. The jail holds a daily average of more than 3,000 inmates and processed more than 50,000 inmates last year.

Inmates, advocates and independent corrections experts say the grievance process is too complicated for many inmates who are poorly educated or illiterate. It also is manipulated by corrections officers and used by the state's lawyers to push valid complaints out of the courts on technicalities, they said.

Margo Schlanger, who has studied grievance processes and helped draft the American Bar Association's standards for prisoner treatment, said that because grievance processes can help protect corrections systems against liability in court cases, there can be an incentive to make them overly strict and use them to "wipe out claims," which is inappropriate.

"I'm a big fan of grievance processes. I like them," said Schlanger, a professor at the University of Michigan Law School. "I think that good jail and prison administrators value them highly and learn a lot from what comes through the grievance process, and take small problems and keep them small. But you don't want it to be a pleading hurdle; you want it to be a management tool."

When the process is used as a hurdle, serious allegations can go unaddressed, inmate advocates say.

In March, state lawyers cited the federal Prison Litigation Reform Act in requesting the dismissal of inmate Calvin Hemphill's lawsuit alleging that Shavella Miles, the city jail's security chief, and other officials allowed him to be beaten. Hemphill named inmate Tavon White as a Black Guerrilla Family gang leader with outsized influence and sexual ties to corrections officers in the jail.

That case never made it to trial — it was dismissed in April — but White was among the inmates indicted that month. He has pleaded not guilty.