Skip to main content

Boiling in the Cells: Prisoners, Grievances, and Substantive Justice


University of California, Irvine Department of Criminology, Law and Society



Source: Speri, Alice. 2016. “’Deadly Heat’” in U.S. Prisons is Killing Inmates and Spawning Lawsuits.” The Intercept. August 24. https://theintercept.com/2016/08/24/deadly-heat-in-u-s-prisons-is-killing-inmates-and-spawning-lawsuits/, last visited on October 19, 2017.

As our article, “’It Depends on the Outcome’: Prisoners, Grievances, and Perceptions of Procedural Justice,” was coming to fruition, national news exposed a grave problem inside U.S. prisons: prisoners are dying of heat exposure in cells that often rise well above 100 degrees.[1] This condition of confinement is objectively measured – high temperatures and prisoner deaths – and contested by prisoners who use the internal grievance system to request relief. Relief is rarely forthcoming. James Little (pseudonym), one of the 120 California prisoners we interviewed for this research, was exasperated with the grievance system in his prison. “It should be about justice,” he said. “Getting it done fairly and getting what you’re supposed to have coming.” 

Contrary to much of the procedural justice literature, our analysis of how prisoners assess the inmate grievance system reveals that they privilege the actual outcomes of disputes — rather than the process — as their barometer of justice. We argue that the dominance of substantive outcomes in prisoners’ perceptions of fairness and in their satisfaction with the prison grievance system is grounded in, among other things, the high stakes of the prison context. As those in prison know all too well, the prison context sometimes results in death.

Consider this. In Texas and California, where the largest prison systems are located and where detention facilities are concentrated in hot desert environments, prison cellblocks are rarely air conditioned. In these carceral institutions, where dog kennels and prison livestock facilities are required by law to be air-conditioned to comfortable temperatures, prisoners are exposed to life-threatening heat waves sometimes lasting months at a time.

The PBS Newshour report “Rising Temperatures Can Kill Texas Prisoners,” cited a class-action lawsuit in which “[U.S. District Judge Keith] Ellison slammed the Texas Department of Corrections for continuously violating the Eighth Amendment by subjecting inmates…to heat indexes that regularly exceed 100 degrees in summer.”[2] During the heat wave of 2011, ten people died of heat exposure inside Texas prisons. Deaths have occurred in states outside the west, as well. The Legal Examiner in Richmond, Virginia, quotes a correction officer saying that inmates there are “‘boiling to death’ in the cells.”[3]

The problem is not new. As we document in our book, Appealing to Justice,[4] prisoners for years have filed internal grievances over inhumane and unhealthy heat conditions. In one such grievance, a California prisoner wrote of overcrowded concrete cells with scorching metal roofs in this desert prison where temperatures routinely reach 114 degrees. His grievance was denied by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR), as are most of the tens of thousands of grievances filed by California prisoners each year. In this context, prisoners privilege eking out whatever remedy they can to make prison life bearable, with procedural justice taking a distant second.

Source: From Valerie Jenness and Kitty Calativa’s photo library.

Sources

[1] Lowry, Lance. 2013. “In Texas, Inmates and Officers Swelter.” The New York Times, November 22, http://www.nytimes.com/2013/11/22/opinion/in-texas-inmates-and-officers-swelter.html, last accessed October 19, 2018.

[2] July 22, 2017; www.pbs.org/newshour, last accessed October 19, 2017.

[3] Phelan, Michael. 2012. “Prisoners Bioling to Death in Their Cells.” The Legal Examiner; http://richmond.legalexaminer.com/wrongful-death/prisoners-boiling-to-death-in-their-cells/,last accessed October 19, 2017.

[4] Calavita, Kitty and Valerie Jenness. 2015 Appealing to Justice: Prisoners, Rights, and Carceral Logic. Oakland, California: University of California Press.

Popular posts from this blog

Comment: Making valid claims in social science research: A comment on Jenness and Calavita

By Tom Tyler, Yale Law School

I am writing to comment on several methodological issues raised by the article by Valerie Jenness and Kitty Calavita, entitled “It depends on the outcome”: Prisoners, grievances, and perceptions of justice”. I am pleased that the methodology blog for Law and Society Review has been created and provides a forum to discuss research design issues. I will address three aspects of the study: operationalization of the variables; statistical analysis; and inclusiveness of the literature review.

The Jenness/Calavita paper studies California prisons using data collected through interviews with prisoners. The paper says that it tests the perceptual procedural justice model, in particular there are frequent references to the Tyler model, in a prison setting. The study concludes that “prisoners privilege the actual outcome of disputes as their barometer of justice” showing “the dominance of substantive outcomes” (from the abstract)”.

I agree with Jenness and Cala…

The Roots of Life Without Parole Sentencing

By Christopher Seeds, New York University



Since the early 1970s, life imprisonment without the possibility of parole (LWOP)—an extreme prison sentence offering no reasonable possibility of release—has emerged as a routine legal sanction and penal practice in the United States. A century, even several decades ago, this would have been unexpected. Yet today, with more than 50,000 prisoners so sentenced and hundreds of laws authorizing it, LWOP is firmly entrenched in American penal policy, in judicial and prosecutorial decisionmaking, and in public discourse. Two general theses—one depicting LWOP as a replacement penalty for capital crimes; another linking LWOP with tough-on-crime sentencing policy of the mass incarceration era—have served as working explanations for this phenomenon. In the absence of in-depth studies, however, there has been little evidence with which to carefully evaluate these narratives.

My article, “Disaggregating LWOP: Life Without Parole, Capital Punishment, and …

Europeanization or National Specificity? Legal Approaches to Sexual Harassment in France, 2002–2012

By Abigail Saguy, UCLA

Sexual harassment represents a massive problem for working women worldwide. A recent social media campaign has brought increased awareness to this fact. In late 2017—after three-dozen women accused Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein of sexual harassment, assault, or rape—millions of women posted “Me Too” on Twitter, Snapchat, Facebook, and other social media platforms. Taking inspiration from African American activist Tarana Burke—who, in 2007, started an offline “Me Too” campaign to let sex abuse survivors know that they were not alone—actress Alyssa Milano launched this online Me Too campaign to shift the focus from Weinstein to victims. She hoped this would “give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem.”[1] While some posted simply, “Me Too,” others provided wrenching detail about abuse they had sometimes never before shared publicly. In France, a similar social media campaign flourished, under the hashtag “balance ton porc,” loosely translated as “sq…