Most of us have been on the receiving end of misbehavior by prison officials. Trying to bring staff’s bad behavior to the attention of the higher ups is, at best, an exercise in frustration, and, often, futility. Poorly designed “remedy” procedures are staffed by apathetic and-to be fair-usually overworked aides who just want to quickly dispose of numerous complaints and move on to one of their other myriad duties. The actual signee, like the Warden, usually does not even read what they sign.
One of the worst features about these systems is that they often subject inmates to harassment and retaliation from staff for reporting misconduct. The inmate must seek, with rare exceptions, to informally resolve matters with staff who caused the problem. This gives staff warning and ability to head off inmates before a paper record is created. The “thin blue line,” every bit as present in prison as on the street, often has the middle management “back their guys, right or wrong” against inmate allegations. Reprisals are not uncommon. Deadlines can easily be missed for a variety of reasons beyond the control of the inmate. And due to the law governing prison lawsuits, failure to correctly complete the process courts court review.
The result is a system that seeks to disenfranchise inmates, either frustrating them until they give up or making it possible to stymie even the diligent inmate. While the purpose of the PLRA (Prison Litigation Reform Act) was to reduce frivolous lawsuits, it seems to discourage only those with valid claims; those who seek to clog the courts with nonsense never seen deterred. This closes the door for the very inmates who need it most, a fact tragically reflected in many of the Supreme Court cases on the subject.
The scrutiny of courts has always been relatively lax, but this largely removes it. Just like any other area of life, lack of oversight leads to negative results, but, in the prison context, where many staff and inmates have severe personality problems, lack of accountability can easily lead to abuse, or even fatal results. Knowing someone is keeping an eye on them helps to keep staff honest and above board. Likewise, knowing they are largely immune from being called on the carpet leads to more bad behavior.
It is not just inmates, and by extension, their families, who suffer. Teaching inmates that they have no legal remedies for mistreatment fosters discontent with the law and makes an inmate less likely to rehabilitate. There is no more dangerous lesson to teach any convicted felon that the law does not apply to everyone. This can only lead to higher recidivism and to more antisocial behavior both inside and out of the prison walls. Society loses out by allowing mistreatment of its prisoners, both on a moral level and because those consequences are felt when the prisoner is released. Worse, prison guards who are allowed to violate the rules within the walls of the institution are unlikely to check those antisocial tendencies the instant they leave the barbed wire confines.
It is a distressingly unknown problem, but our willingness to tolerate, excuse and/or cover up bad behavior-large and small-from those already largely hidden from the public eye is a great flaw and a destabilizing factor for our prisons and our system of justice as a whole. If we are truly serious about reform, this is one of the major things we need to focus on.