The Failures of an Unchecked Prison Grievance System
In 1996, the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA) became law due to the high number of prison-related cases flooding the courts. It prevented incarcerated individuals from bringing issues before a judge without first seeking resolution through every level of their prison’s internal grievance system. Seven years later, Jacob Gamet entered Washington state’s Department of Corrections (DOC), where he became known for his ability to effectively navigate this program on behalf of his incarcerated neighbors.
“Naturally I’ve always taken up causes for people,” he tells Anti-Racism Daily (ARD) in an exclusive interview. “So when people started bringing me their issues in prison, I felt inclined to help.”
Gamet, now 50, earned a 22-year sentence in 2003 for an attempted murder stemming from a knife fight involving his girlfriend and her friend. As a Black man, he learned early on how little protection was built into the system for the underrepresented.
“They tried to put me in a cell with a white power guy, and I couldn’t cope with it,” he recalls. “When I refused, they put me in the hole.”
• Reach out to Mr. Gamet at email@example.com to volunteer to help incarcerated individuals file grievances or assist with editing his publications.
According to the DOC’s official Grievance Pocket Guide (revised April 12th, 2018)—a book most incarcerated people don’t even know exists—”segregation placement” is one of 33 non-grievable issues. Also on that list are “alleged inadequate grievance investigation,” “alleged inappropriate grievance response,” and “a Grievance Coordinator’s decision that a complaint is not grievable.”
Washington DOC’s grievance program was conceptualized after a 1979 riot in the Washington State Penitentiary (NYTimes). Over the years, countless revisions have made it exceedingly difficult for prisoners’ complaints to conform to the PLRA.
Gamet claims that “the system’s stacked against guys who are trying to file grievances. For one, the grievance coordinators ask for multiple rewrites from guys with no education, who don’t know how to write a basic letter.”
The Grievance Pocket Guide lists nine reasons a prisoner may be asked to rewrite a complaint. Among them are that “it contains citations of law or too much legal terminology,” “it is not a simple straightforward statement of concern,” or “it contains profane language (except when used in a direct quote).” The latter continues to be used by grievance coordinators, despite a 2018 9th Circuit finding that determined the wording of a complaint doesn’t negate the issue being grieved (Cornell).
It’s rare for grievances not to be returned for rewrites, at which point most prisoners get the message that their issues are not important to the DOC and give up. Gamet believes this attitude contributes to recidivism, asserting, “It creates a bitterness toward the system, and diverts a person’s attention away from healing and rehabilitation.”
In addition to helping his neighbors write effective grievances, Gamet assists prisoners in navigating the kangaroo-court hearings process. He claims it takes not only a unique type of analytical mind to understand these systems but also the right narrative.
“I specialize in narratives,” he explains, “and really good narratives actually give context to the incident. Infractions are written to leave certain details out to prove guilt, but when the hearing officer hears the entire narrative, he’s able to see it from a humanistic point of view.”
Once, “there was an old guy who got caught with a razor taped under the shelf in his cell, but it made more sense that a painter had left it there before he’d moved in, and it had just never been noticed. I wrote him a six-point argument that he read at his hearing, and he came back smiling, and told everyone he’d won because he’d had Johnny Cochran on the case.”
Eventually, Gamet couldn’t even walk from his cell to the water fountain without multiple people asking him for help. In early 2020, he submitted a comprehensive proposal to the DOC, outlining his idea for a peer advisory group that could offer this service in an official capacity. Though not fully accepted, parts of his program have been implemented as a pilot in certain Washington prisons.
On Monday, April 11th, Jacob Gamet was released after serving 19 years in confinement. His work hasn’t stopped. Before leaving, he conceptualized the Prison Hero Clinic, an organization that incarcerated individuals can contact at firstname.lastname@example.org with problems related to filing grievances, appealing the outcomes of infractions, filing tort claims, and the like. He’s also working on two books he intends to have published, Grievance Hero, and Infraction Hero, because, as he told the ARD, “I can’t stand to see these guys taken advantage of by heavily lopsided systems. They have rights, and should be able to defend themselves so the scales of justice will balance out.”
• The prison grievance system fails incarcerated individuals.
• This provides staff impunity, enabling misconduct and abuse of power.
• An ineffective prison grievance system hampers rehabilitation.