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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.

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