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Inside the Pyramid of Disputes: Naming, Claiming and Refraining in 3 California Prisons


February 9, 2012 12:45pm - 2:15pm

Room 185
Room 185

Brought to you by Stanford Program in Law and Society

Professor Kitty Calavita, University of California, Irvine (Emerita)

Paper Abstract: Previous literature on disputing and legal mobilization suggests that stigmatized, self-blaming, and/or vulnerable populations face significant barriers to naming a situation as injurious and claiming redress, sometimes even in the face of what appear to be dramatic harms. Contrary to what one would expect from this literature, prisoners in the United States—among the most stigmatized and vulnerable of populations—file tens of thousands of grievances annually. The authors explore this apparent paradox, drawing on an unprecedented data set of face-to-face interviews with a random sample of 120 men in three California prisons, supplemented with a random sample of 459 inmate grievances, interviews with prison staff, and official data. The interviews reveal that almost all of these prisoners are willing and able to name problems, and almost three-quarters of them have filed grievances. While some expressed self-blame for incarceration and most of them said there were staff reprisals for filing a grievance, the majority overcame these potential impediments to filing. The authors argue that the institutional context of prison—a total institution in which law is a hyper-visible organizing force—may enhance this form of legal mobilization by prisoners, trumping the very social and psychological factors that that context otherwise produces, and that in other populations tamp down claimsmaking. However, these men are by no means immune to the pressures of prison, as revealed by the specific pattern of their naming and claiming. While staff disrespect was named frequently as a leading problem in prison, grievances against staff—a category of appeals that these prisoners said triggers the most retaliation—were relatively rare. In concluding, the authors note that the U.S. Supreme Court has recently found California prisons to violate the 8th Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment, a finding that reveals the inadequacy of the inmate appeals system despite prisoners’ repeated efforts to hold the authorities accountable.