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From Grievance to Resolution: Words Matter

Published August 19, 2020, Updated August 25, 2020

By Rachel Noll

DOC Communications

image of department of corrections complaint form

(Department of Corrections Photo)

The Washington State Department of Corrections (DOC) has long had an administrative process to ensure those under its custody have the ability to share concerns with and seek remedies from agency leadership.

The department’s grievance program provides incarcerated individuals with a process to make complaints regarding incidents that affect them personally and over which the department has jurisdiction, including actions by employees, contract staff, volunteers and other inmates. Incarcerated individuals may grieve their place of confinement when it relates to policy, lack of policy and/or the lack of application of policy.

Following this process, incarcerated individuals have the opportunity to resolve concerns at the lowest level possibility, prior to any litigation, as required by the Prison Litigation Reform Act (pdf). The Act requires that an incarcerated individual exhaust administrative remedies before filing for litigation.

The current four-step process

The program consists of four steps, with the initial phase zero as the opportunity for an issue to be resolved verbally without an investigation, this stage involves communication with the incarcerated individual and the staff member involved.

If the issue is not resolved at level zero, the next step is an administrative investigation by the supervisor of the area where the issue took place. If the incarcerated individual is not satisfied with the outcome of the investigation, they may request an appeal. Each appeal escalates the issue to the next higher supervisor authority. If each appeal opportunity is requested, the final level of review will occur at the Deputy Secretary level.

Each administrative investigation can overturn the previous decision with a new decision on how to remedy the issue, or the decision may be a final determination that department policy was followed appropriately, and the only remaining option would be litigation.

New mission and vision drive new approach

As the agency created new mission and vision statements, staff around the agency began thinking of additional ways to align their program area with these new statements in a positive way. When the Office of the Corrections Ombuds (OCO) had the opportunity to evaluate the processes currently in place for the existing grievance program, the office raised some meaningful questions regarding the nature of the process and ways for potential improvement of the program.

With the need for changes identified, a committee comprised of DOC agency staff, the OCO, members of the state and local family councils, Corrections volunteers and the Attorney General’s office formally reviewed the program in order to find specific ways to improve the processes and standards that would also be compliant with applicable laws and policies.

A new name to signal a new way

Part of this work involved completely renaming the program—and as a result, once policies become final, the Grievance Program will become the Resolution Program.

As Jason Martin, Grievance Coordinator at Airway Heights Corrections Center pointed out, the old way was not necessarily wrong. However, there are always opportunities for continuous improvement. He went on to point out that even the word “grievance” at its core definition, has significant negative connotations. According to Merriam-Webster, grievance means as “a cause of distress … felt to afford reason for complaint or resistance.”

Alternatively, the word resolution means “a firm decision to do or not to do something…the act of answering (solving)…something that is resolved.”

As Martin pointed out, “words matter.” Although the changes run deeper than changing the terminology, the point is to give a new perception regarding the program. By filling out a Request for Resolution, an incarcerated individual is now asking for help solving a problem, rather than making a complaint. The language of the program mirrors the changes and intentions.

“Rather than grieving an issue, the incarcerated individual is asking for help with reaching a resolution, this is important because it allows both our staff and incarcerated individuals to model pro-social behaviors by learning how to resolve an issue, rather than simply complaining about it,” said Martin.

Familiar steps, new timelines and techniques

The phases of the resolution program will remain the same, but the associated timelines have been changed to ensure decision making occurs in a timely manner. The committee also developed a workshop that both staff and incarcerated individuals will be able to attend to learn how to write resolution requests. This provides important life skills that will assist the incarcerated individuals with their re-entry by providing the right tools to research and resolve their own issues whether incarcerated or as part of society.

Incarcerated individuals who attend the workshop are then subject matter experts who can provide peer support and mentorship to other incarcerated individuals. These impactful changes will make a positive difference in the communication between staff and incarcerated individuals as they learn together how to model pro-social behavior and find true resolution at the lowest level possible. This could in turn prevent misunderstandings, violence and poor relationships by providing opportunities for positive communication.

Positive changes now and into the future

“We are modelling positive changes that align with our mission, vision and values,” said Carol Smith, Corrections Statewide Grievance Manager. “This program is more relevant, allows for more empathy and demonstrates how decisions that impact staff and incarcerated individuals can make a difference.”

Not only has this program been a major opportunity for collaboration between multiple agencies, the staff who will be most affected by these changes have had the opportunity to be part of the project from the beginning.

Grievance coordinators working in facilities have been able to provide input, help structure the changes, and consult on policy. Those line staff, Corrections Specialists Jason Martin, Brandi Blair, Kaci Thomas, Carianne Shuster, Alexandra Watanabe and Mike Jackson were all instrumental in the coordination and drafting of the changes to the resolution program, said Smith.

Incarcerated individuals provided additional feedback, ensuring that the program changes will not only be ethical, legal and pro-social, but that every area impacted by the changes have had an opportunity to help form what those positive changes will be.

It’s a process that Smith says she hopes to see continue as the collaboration aspect has been both thoughtful and meaningful. By bringing together multiple agencies, as well as the staff and incarcerated impacted by the changes, Corrections further demonstrates its commitment to operate a safe and humane corrections system and partner with others to transform lives for a better Washington.