Federal appeals court ruling likens North Carolina’s prison grievance system to a “real world ‘Catch 22’”

Federal appeals court ruling likens North Carolina’s prison grievance system to a “real world ‘Catch 22’”

Lawsuit involves a disabled man sedated against his will after he complained his cell wasn’t compliant with federal law.

The system that allows people incarcerated in North Carolina’s prisons to register complaints about their treatment is a confusing and confounding process — so opaque it’s questionable whether they can even access it, according to a ruling issued last week by the U.S Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit.

The facts of the case, wrote Judge Robert B. King for a unanimous three-judge panel, suggest the incarcerated person at its center “faced ‘a real world ‘Catch 22,’ a dilemma from which there is no escape, one in which the only solution is denied by a circumstance inherent in the problem.’”

The suit deals with North Carolina’s “prison grievance procedure.” It’s ostensibly the method for incarcerated people to complain internally about their conditions of confinement. But the process is riddled with contradictions, a Kafkaesque labyrinth of overlapping rules and deadlines, according to the 20-page court ruling.

The first grievance: the need for a Kosher diet

At issue was a series of grievances filed in 2015 and 2016 by Matthew James Griffin.

Shortly after arriving at Central Prison in Raleigh, Griffin filed a written grievance on Oct. 27, 2015, requesting to be placed on a Kosher diet. Officials accepted the complaint for review two days later. They put him on the diet on Oct. 30, “favorably resolving” the grievance before authorities gave him a written response.

Timeline of events in the case of Matthew James Griffin:
2015 OCTOBER
27 Griffin files grievance to be put on a Kosher diet
30 Officials place Griffin on Kosher diet but didn’t formally document grievance had been resolved
NOVEMBER
25 Griffin complained he had yet to be placed in an ADA-compliant cell
26 Nurse tells Griffin to stop complaining or he will be involuntarily medicated
27 Prison staff involuntarily medicate Griffin; he files a grievance
30 involuntary medication grievance returned because system shows Kosher diet grievance still pending
2016
JANUARY

4 Griffin files grievance alleging medical staff failed to treat skin condition
6 Grievance accepted even though Kosher grievance still in system 12 Skin care grievance denied
FEBRUARY
26 Griffin refiles involuntary medication grievance
APRIL
29 Involuntary medication grievance rejected as being “untimely”

And yet, King wrote that “for unknown reasons” the grievance was never formally removed from the system. That omission would have significant ramifications, Griffin learned over the next several months.

Prison officials blame Griffin for failing to dismiss it, but King said it’s not clear what ability, if any, the incarcerated have to unilaterally dismiss their own grievances. “The grievance procedure does not contemplate such an option,” King wrote. 

The second grievance: involuntary sedation

Seriously visually impaired, Griffin is at increased risk of falling and hurting himself. Prison staff had directed he be given a handicapped-accessible cell, but there wasn’t one yet available. Officials placed him in a temporary prison hospital cell until he could get one compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act. After three days, on Nov. 25, Griffin started complaining about the lack of an ADA-compliant cell.

That annoyed corrections staff.

On Nov. 26, Nadine Bryant, a nurse at Central Prison who is named in the suit, warned Griffin, “If you continue to wake us up to complain about the ADA I’m going to have you involuntarily medicated.”

Griffin kept complaining.

Bryant made good on the threat.

In the early morning of Nov. 27, Bryant and several other prison staff entered Griffin’s cell. They forced him to the floor and sedated him against his will. Several hours later, Griffin awoke in his cell, unsupervised, and fell, striking his head and dislocating his shoulder.

Griffin filed a written grievance over the involuntary sedation later that same day. Prison officials soon returned that grievance because his Kosher diet complaint was still pending — “still on the books yet seemingly forgotten,” in Judge King’s words, despite that Griffin was in fact on a Kosher diet.

Because the Kosher diet grievance had never formally been resolved by a written response or forwarded to a Step 2 appeal, the prison’s “one-grievance-at-a-time” rule barred Griffin from filing the sedation grievance or any further grievances, King wrote.

The third grievance: Inadequate care for a skin condition

But inexplicably, a third grievance did go forward.

Griffin filed a new complaint on Jan. 4, 2016, alleging a skin condition hadn’t been adequately treated. That grievance was accepted for review, even though prison officials had taken no formal, documented action on the Kosher diet grievance.

“At that point Griffin had a pending grievance — the Kosher diet grievance — that should have made him ineligible to file another. Nonetheless, prison officials accepted the skincare grievance, King wrote, apparently violating their own procedure.”

The ruling noted that prison officials have not explained why they accepted the grievance about inadequate skin care alongside the one involving the Kosher diet, yet not the sedation grievance.

How the prison grievance process works:


Incarcerated people must file a grievance in writing within 90 days of whatever happens that gives them reason to complain. After the grievance is submitted, corrections officials have three days to determine whether it should be accepted for review or rejected, based on its compliance with the rules.

If it is accepted, prison officials must provide a formal written response to the aggrieved within 15 days, fulfilling “Step 1” of the procedure. If the incarcerated isn’t satisfied with the decision from Step 1, they can appeal, initiating “Step 2.”

During this stage, prison officials must review the pending grievance and give another written response, this time within 20 days of the date of appeal. An important caveat: an incarcerated person cannot have more than one grievance pending at or before the Step 2 review. If he has a grievance in the system, he must wait for it to be resolved, or for it to pass the Step 2 stage, before he files another grievance. “Step 3” comes if the incarcerated is unsatisfied with the result of Step 2.

This is the final stage of the grievance procedure, requiring a review by the state’s Secretary of Public Safety. If officials don’t respond to the incarcerated within the allotted timeframes of each stage of the process, that silence counts as a denial, which the incarcerated can then appeal.

This is how the process works in principle. It is not always how it works in practice, as Griffin’s experience shows.

Prison officials denied the skin care grievance in writing in early January 2016. Griffin appealed, advancing it to Step 2. Prison officials failed to reply within 20 days, instead issuing a written response two weeks past the deadline, in February.

At the same time, prison officials advanced the Kosher diet grievance to Step 2, which had been stagnant in the system for three and a half months, due to the “timeframe violation.”

By February, Griffin had appealed the Kosher diet and skin care grievances to Step 3. As of Feb. 26, Griffin had no grievances pending that would have prohibited him from resubmitting his involuntary sedation grievance.

But the day prior — that being Feb. 25 — was precisely 90 days after Central Prison officials had involuntarily sedated Griffin, King wrote.

That 90-day mark was important because according to the prison’s grievance procedure, there is that is the length of the filing limitation. “Indeed, when Griffin resubmitted that grievance on April 29, 2016, it was rejected as untimely,” King wrote.

In its ruling, the Court of Appeals panel pointed out several inconsistencies with the grievance procedure and Griffin’s experience. For one, prisoners must file appeals in writing on a specific form. Prison officials, in turn, return that form to the prisoner with their decision.

However, King noted, there’s nothing in the grievance procedure that explains how an aggrieved person can get a blank version of that form if prison officials do not respond to the grievance in a timely manner. In other words, how are incarcerated people supposed to appeal if they can’t obtain the proper form?

King also noted the grievance procedure contradicts itself. It allows for an automatic appeal if prison officials don’t respond within prescribed time limits, or if an incarcerated person refuses to sign the form indicating their desire to appeal.

“Those provisions thus suggest that there is no need for an inmate to appeal when prison officials fail to respond to his grievance, because the grievance will automatically proceed to the next Step,” King wrote. “As the facts of this case illustrate, however, that is not always what occurs.”

The prison officials named in the suit blame Griffin. They argued he could have pursued other administrative remedies: “He cannot be excused for failing to help himself.” They contend he should have dismissed his own Kosher diet grievance, to make way for his sedation grievance that he could have filed between November 2015 and January 2016.

The judges weren’t convinced by these arguments. The ruling questions why the Kosher diet grievance was “stagnant” for three and a half months after its resolution in October 2015. It also questioned the decision of prison officials to allow Griffin’s inadequate skin care and Kosher diet grievances but reject the sedation grievance.

“It is clearly unsettled on this record how the prison system’s grievance procedure functions — on paper and in practice — and what actually occurred between October 2015 and April 2016 as Griffin’s various grievances were being considered,” King wrote. “To be sure, Griffin makes a compelling case that the grievance procedure’s overlapping rules and deadlines presented him with ‘a simple dead end,’ that the facts invite at least an inference of ‘thwarting’ and ‘machination’ by prison officials …”

Griffin appealed the case to the Fourth Circuit after U.S. District Court Judge Richard Meyers ruled in favor of correction officials, determining that Griffin hadn’t exhausted all the administrative remedies that were available to him prior to filing a lawsuit in federal court. The unanimous decision by the three-judge panel vacated the district court ruling and remanded it back to the District Court for further proceedings.