Okay, so your loved one is in prison and you have some concerns. He’s only been given one blanket and he’s cold. Her mattress is only 2 inches thick and she’s having trouble sleeping. He’s a vegetarian and would like all his meals to be vegan. He’s Muslim and his prayer rug has been lost. They’re on their 3rd lockdown in 5 weeks and he hasn’t been to the commissary all month and he’s out of tobacco.
Should you call the prison on his behalf? The short answer is, no. But there are exceptions, which I’ll cover shortly. One of the most difficult things to get used to about prison life is that it doesn’t work like it does on the street. The inmate has very little control over his life, and you have even less control of it.
However, there are procedures in place to assist the inmate when his/her rights are being violated. (Grieving disciplinary actions require a different procedure). And even though they are incarcerated, they do have rights. Under normal circumstances, they have up to 60 days from the incident to file a grievance. If it is an ongoing procedure, then the time limit may not apply.
Before filing the grievance, they need to first try to resolve the issue with their counselor. If it cannot be resolved at that level, then there is an official grievance form and procedure they can initiate. This complaint is sent to a grievance officer who reviews it and sends his recommendations to the Chief Administrative Officer of the prison, usually the warden. If it is denied at that level, the warden signs it and has up to 2 months to return the grievance form to the inmate. The inmate then has 30 days to appeal to the Director of IDOC in Springfield who reviews the case and determines whether or not it has merit and should be heard by the Administrative Review Board (ARB). The ARB may conduct a hearing at which the inmate could be asked to be present and at which time he may call witnesses to support his grievance.
The ARB has up to 6 months to return their findings in writing to the inmate. However, if the grievance involves personal harm or injury to the inmate, emergency grievance procedures could be expedited.
What kinds of incidents can be grieved? Rights violations, property violations, procedural violations. There are certain times when the inmate can and should file a grievance directly with the ARB, such as issues regarding protective custody, being in immediate physical harm, being forced to take psychotropic medications against their will, etc.. These procedures are outlined in the Inmate’s Handbook that all inmates are given upon their arrival in a prison facility. This handbook will also provide more details about the overall grievance procedure.
It is also within an inmate’s right to file a lawsuit if s/he feels his Constitutional rights are being violated, or anytime there is a legitimate case that can be handled in a court of law. It should be noted that an inmate can be given a ticket and possibly sent to Administration Segregation anywhere from 30-90 days for filing a “frivolous lawsuit” which is defined as “a pleading, motion, or other paper filed by the offender for which the court, in accordance with 730 ILCS 5/3-6-3, has found to be frivolous.”
There are times when you should get involved with the prison. If you and/or your loved one’s Constitutional rights are being violated and the grievances filed by the inmate have been denied, then go ahead and step in. My recommendation is to start with his/her counselor because my personal experience has been a very good one with my inmate’s counselor. He has always been very pleasant and extremely helpful. Unfortunately, not all counselors are created equal in IDOC. If your counselor is unduly rude or dismissive or otherwise uncooperative, move on to the Warden. Depending on the Warden and depending on the issue, you may or may not get to speak with him. You may get passed on to one of the Assistant Wardens. Writing a letter is a good idea, but keep dated copies. And in your letter, request a reply in writing and/or a telephone call reply. If you don’t hear from the Warden in a reasonable amount of time, follow up with a phone call to his/her office.
If there is a legitimate medical concern regarding medications or procedures that need to be done, you need to call someone on his/her behalf. Again, start with his/her counselor and go up the chain of command from there. The counselor should be able to help in this situation. When talking to him/her, ask for a timeframe when you can expect the situation to be resolved, or when you should call back for an answer. If you feel it is an emergency situation and your loved one is in immediate danger or at risk, you may need to call the warden’s office directly.
If dealing directly with the prison does not yield satisfactory results, in Springfield, there is an Inmate Issues office. You can call the main contact number listed on the IDOC website, 217-522-2666, and ask for that office. It can be frustrating. They may refer you back to the warden at the prison. I have been put on hold while talking to a person at Inmate Issues, and the next person who answered the phone was the warden at Menard, much to my surprise!
Tempting as it may be to pick up the phone and call the prison every time you get a complaint from your inmate, resist the temptation. Prison isn’t a school and the warden isn’t the principal! Most of the time, the inmate will be able to resolve the issue himself or herself at the prison level. Occasionally, situations come up that affect you directly. For instance, the mail delivery that can be agonizingly slow. Most of the time, there isn’t much you can do about it other than to complain. You can call the counselor, the warden, the assistant warden of operations, even the mailroom directly. About the only time you get results is if you have sent in something specific that has not been delivered after several weeks. Yes, several weeks. It is not unusual for mail, particularly magazines, newspapers, and packages, at some facilities to be delayed by weeks and/or months. I called and let the office know that the books I had ordered had not yet been delivered, and the timeframe in which they could be returned, or, that I could file a claim for non-delivery, was rapidly closing in. A very nice administrative assistant put me on hold and hunted down the items. If anything goes missing – items sent in by mail or left at the front desk during a visit, money sent in via money order or Western Union – it needs to be reported it to the warden.
Officially, an inmate is not supposed to be harassed or retaliated against for filing a grievance, or for a family member calling in on his/her behalf. If any staff member does retaliate against an inmate, that inmate can then file a grievance and/or lawsuit about that treatment. But, even though s/he may eventually win the case, it could take considerable time. And retaliation comes in many forms, some devious.
If you have any questions, please ask. Scout may have additional things to add to this, and one of us will try to answer your questions.