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Women Offender Programs and Issues

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The Cross Gender Monitoring Project
3rd and Final Annual Report

vi) Mediation and Conflict Resolution and the Inmate Grievance System

While the Co-Monitors are clearly recommending that mediation/conflict resolution and the Inmate Grievance System not be used for sexual misconduct allegations, we received considerable comment from respondents about conflict resolution and inmate grievances. Effective mechanisms for resolution of the conflicts which inevitably arise in the prison context can be a major positive force, but if conflict/grievance resolution is ineffective, it can become a major source in itself for frustration and other problems. Accordingly, the Co-Monitors are offering a number of suggestions in this area so that our findings might inform improvements in these areas, regardless of the option chosen to deal with sexual misconduct allegations. The Inmate Grievance System may well be used for complaints or grievances about other issues related to cross gender staffing.

CSC's current model for grievance resolution places a high emphasis on informal resolution, at the "complaint" stage, before the grievant proceeds to the formal grievance procedure. Informal resolution of "complaints" in effect requires the grievant to negotiate her complaint with the staff member who is responsible for the matter in question. Research in this area18 suggests this is problematic because too often it can result in imposed rather than real solutions: the complainant is put off rather than satisfied. Our own interviews suggest that neither staff nor inmates are satisfied with informal resolution at most FSW institutions (with some exceptions). In addition, an informal system can impair the accessibility of the grievance procedure; it does not allow for proper monitoring of complaints or solutions; and research suggests that grievants are more likely to feel satisfied with both the process and the outcome if there is some degree of formality to the procedure.

Mediation of inmate complaints is a far more effective process than negotiation, especially in a setting like a penitentiary, where there are large power imbalances. Mediation may be carried out by any person who is trained in mediation skills, is perceived by staff and inmates alike to be fair, and has no direct stake in the outcome.

Although CSC policy allows for the formation of a staff-inmate Committee for mediating grievances, most penitentiaries do not have an active committee, and this is regrettable. The solution to most grievances in a prison setting is obvious, and in most instances, the matter can be settled without resort to higher levels if both parties can be brought together before a trained, credible Committee which has the manifest support of management. An additional (and related) problem is that very few current CSC staff or inmates have had any training in the conflict resolution principles and design, principles which should guide a mediation-based grievance procedure. As a result, many staff and managers see the grievance procedure as an irritant or a personal attack, and inmates tend to see it as slow, ineffective and a basis for reprisals.

The Inmate Complaints and Grievance System should be formal, including at the initial complaint stage and in any mediation or conflict resolution emanating from a complaint by an inmate. Specifically:

  • complaints should be in writing and there should be written responses to each complaint
  • staff and inmates should receive regular updates of decisions by the various levels of grievances and any policy implications
  • conflict resolution/mediation should only occur when there is consent by both parties freely given

A properly funded pilot project should be undertaken to test the feasibility and best design of such an approach. Careful attention should be paid to dealing with training and confidentiality issues in the design of such a pilot. The approach should be based on the following:

  • filing a "complaint" should never be mandatory and, like grievances, should always involve a full written reply and explanation for the response
  • following the initial submission, the Inmate Clerk, Staff Grievance Coordinator, or staff or inmate members of the Grievance Committee, working singly or in teams, may attempt to mediate a solution between the parties
  • unless the grievant feels the matter is confidential, grievances not resolved at the initial stage should be mediated by the Grievance Committee, made up of equal numbers of staff and inmates
  • solutions agreed to at this mediated hearing should be implemented on the spot unless they require the authority of a more senior CSC decision-maker to implement, in which case, they should become a recommendation by the Committee to the appropriate authority
  • staff and inmates should receive regular updates of decisions by the various levels of grievances and any policy implications

This pilot project should be based on "best practices". Research suggests that both inmates and staff should be oriented and trained together in mediation principles and the key design principles of an effective grievance procedure. Following initial orientation for the entire institution, candidates for key staff positions (Coordinator, Committee members) should be chosen, and inmate participants (Clerk, Committee members) should be elected by secret ballot. The key actors should then be trained together in mediation and consensus-building skills through role-playing and other hands-on experience.

The precise workings of the procedure should be determined by staff and inmates deliberating together. The procedure should be tailored to suit each individual institution, as for example where certain cultural adaptations would make it more workable. This improves the chances that all concerned will be committed to the procedure, will comply with it, will find it less threatening, and will not use it for frivolous grievances.

18 See, e.g., Singer, Linda (1990, n.p.) Inmate Grievance Procedures: Design Features and Experience. Report of a seminar with CSC, NPB and Correctional Investigator staff in Ottawa, August 21, 1990; and Dillingham, David (1974) Controlled Confrontation. Washington: National Institute for Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice.