Last month state auditor Doug Hoffer released a 41-page report outlining the comprehensive failure of the Department of Corrections’ process for addressing grievances submitted by people incarcerated in Vermont’s prisons.
The auditors found that DOC is failing at essentially all of the major aspects of the grievance process. They wrote that “DOC’s process to receive and respond to grievances lacks transparency due to unreliable data, does not provide assurance that complaints are resolved, and operates without centralized accountability. Specifically, there were significant deficiencies in the (1) accuracy and completeness of DOC’s grievance data, (2) responses to grievances, and (3) executive oversight of the process.”
What is especially striking is that, according to the report, they were unable to perform a systemwide audit “because of the significant deficiencies in the DOC information system used to record grievances…including how long DOC takes to respond to grievances.” Essentially, the grievance system is such a catastrophic failure that it is difficult to just study how it functions and how it could be improved – even for people whose entire job is analyzing and optimizing government systems. Instead, the auditors had to limit their engagement with DOC’s grievance system “to (1) documenting errors and incomplete records, and (2) reviewing specific grievances and how they were handled.”
No Surprise to Many
While these may be shocking revelations for those of us who haven’t had loved ones incarcerated or been locked up ourselves, the report is unsurprising for those who have experienced these systems firsthand. This includes, tellingly, DOC leadership. The manager overseeing the grievance system “indicated awareness of many of the reliability issues we specify in this report,” but hadn’t made any changes to the system since it was last updated in 2015. DOC Commissioner Nicolas Deml admitted to VTDigger that “[the auditors] largely got it right…I think we know that these are the things we need to work on.”
DOC shared a press release a week after the report was published, promising to implement “a digital, tablet-based grievance system statewide” and creating a Corrections Investigation Unit, “with the authority to conduct reviews of the grievance process in addition to investigations into major incidents such as escapes, allegations of sexual assault, and deaths of individuals in state custody.”
I believe that how we view this response has deep implications for our struggle to end the harm caused by Vermont’s prison system.
DOC has known about these problems for years, yet only made promises to address them once their failures received public attention through the auditor’s report. The creation of the Corrections Investigation Unit was mandated by law in 2021 – if addressing these issues was a high priority for DOC, they would have created such a body right away. Or, of course, they could have worked diligently to address sexual assaults, deaths, and shortfalls of the grievance process so that these problems didn’t reach the point of requiring legislative intervention. Instead they have waited almost two years since this law was passed to announce that they are beginning the work.
Broken Grievance System Goes Back Decades
It’s also important to remember that these complaints are not new. Instead, the 2021 law mandating greater accountability and investigations is the latest chapter in decades of complaints about DOC’s grievance system. It follows a typical pattern: notable failures and incredible harm lead to public outrage and demands for change, which are met with promises of reform; these promises quell the dischord and the issue drifts away from the public eye, until another round of cruelty, neglect, or tragedy puts the cycle into motion again.
In 2003, after almost four months of solitary confinement, Jim Quigley hung himself in his cell in the notorious D-Wing of the St. Albans prison. A subsequent investigation revealed that DOC had no legitimate reason to treat him so cruelly, but did so as retribution for filing grievances. This tragedy led to a round of reforms, with the key decision makers in Quigley’s abuse losing their jobs and DOC implementing measures to increase accountability and ensure fair treatment of prisoners who file grievances. If these measures had worked, we would not be in the position we are today. But here we are, almost two decades later, urged, once again, to trust that this round of reforms will redress the failure that is the DOC’s grievance system.
Will improving the grievance system reduce some of the worst abuses of power and bring DOC’s actions closer to the realm of what is mandated by law? We have clear reason for skepticism, but it’s possible. And I truly hope that there is change, because an improved grievance system would be a meaningful step to enable incarcerated people to better advocate for themselves and meet their needs under law.
But it is also important to be clear about the limits of this change. This will not stop the immense harm caused by the prison system to people incarcerated, and the communities they are segregated from and will return to – because the prison system is designed to create that harm. The separation from community, the rupturing of relationships, the deprivation of freedom, the power differentials – these are all characteristics of the system. An effective grievance system will simply bring these into line with what the law demands, it will not stop the harm they are designed to cause. Actually addressing these dynamics would require us to accept that incarceration creates harm, it does not stop it. No matter how thoroughly the grievance system can be reformed.
– Jonathan Elwell