‘A Waste of Time’: Inside New York’s Broken Jail Accountability System

The state council that reviews grievances spent an average of eight seconds on each case in its last meeting — and rejected nearly all of them.

Eliza Fawcett and Chris Gelardi   ·   December 4, 2023
In jails, it's an open secret that the grievance process doesn't work. The public rarely gets to see the details. | SCOC grievance appeal form | Illustration: Maia Hibbett

If you’re in jail, and you’re getting harassed, abused, denied health care, or barred from visitation time, there’s generally just one thing you can do: File a grievance.

For people who have spent time in jail in New York state, it’s an open secret that grievances rarely accomplish anything. But the public almost never gets a look into that broken aspect of the carceral system.

Through public records requests, New York Focus obtained hundreds of pages of jail inspection documents. Paired with state government reports and interviews with formerly incarcerated people, they illustrate a grievance process in which procedural violations abound and cases often meet dead ends, making it exceedingly difficult for incarcerated people to obtain recourse for poor conditions or mistreatment.

Sheriffs’ offices, which run county jails, often ignore or suppress incarcerated people’s formal grievances. And the state agency responsible for making them comply with corrections regulations — the State Commission of Correction, or SCOC — only evaluates jails’ grievance processes every few years. It rarely sanctions jails that violate state regulations, effectively leaving sheriffs to their own devices.

“The grievance process is a waste of time,” said Mike, who was jailed in Erie County in the past year. He requested a pseudonym out of fear of retaliation.

Incarcerated people can appeal directly to SCOC — which happens thousands of times each year — giving the body the opportunity to address grievances itself. But it has long failed to fill the council tasked with reviewing appeals. Currently, seven of its nine positions sit vacant.

According to minutes from its last meeting, held November 9, the two-member council decided 304 grievance cases in 40 minutes — averaging less than eight seconds per case. It unanimously denied 293 of those cases, in line with recent trends. Between 2019 and 2021, the council fielded nearly 12,500 grievances about county jails — and rejected more than 98 percent.

Before grievances get to SCOC, jails are supposed to investigate them and issue written responses detailing their findings. If an incarcerated person appeals the decision, a jail administrator must review those findings. But jails — which hold both unconvicted people awaiting trial and those serving short sentences — often fail to adhere to the state-mandated process, issuing their own, more permissive regulations.

Jails are required to investigate grievances within five business days. For sexual abuse cases, for instance, Madison County gave jail employees up to 160 days to respond in a grievance process it implemented independently. The jail also told people that if they received no response, it meant that their grievance was denied, and threatened to discipline them for filing anything deemed to be a “false” sexual abuse grievance.

SCOC inspectors recorded issues with grievance practices, policies, and record keeping at more than three dozen county jail systems between 2018 and 2023. Inspectors caught Broome, Montgomery, Nassau, Orleans, and Oswego counties rejecting certain types of complaints as “non-grievable” — that is, containing allegations ineligible for the formal grievance process — that were, per state policy, actually grievable. The Rockland County Sheriff’s Office would reject entire grievances containing multiple allegations if it deemed any one of them non-grievable, while jails in Chautauqua, Chenango, Ontario, and Wayne counties would skip over allegations on grievances that contained multiple.

“The conditions that I filed about never changed.”

—Darryl Scott

More violations are likely flying under the radar. SCOC only audits facilities on a rolling, multi-year cycle, leaving jailed people to deal with systems that don’t address their problems for years at a time. The most recent cycle saw SCOC inspectors evaluate roughly half of jails’ grievance processes in 2018, and the other half in 2022. In other years, jails handle incarcerated people’s complaints with little oversight from Albany.

Mike, who was jailed after multiple instances of driving while intoxicated, was primarily held at the Erie County Correctional Facility in Alden. At times, he said, he thought he would never get out alive.

“I thought, ‘I’m going to die here,’” Mike, who is 69 years old, told New York Focus. He started having trouble seeing and lost significant weight.

He said that staff at one point moved him into a dorm with multiple people who had Covid, although he had tested negative multiple times. It was winter, and the dorm was so cold that he lined his bed with newspapers to stay warm.

Mike wrote and filed a seven-page grievance about his conditions, but nothing happened. It was only because he had made friends with a guard, he said, that he was moved back to his original dorm five days later.

“It wasn’t my grievance that got me out,” he said.

From 2019 to 2021, the council rejected more than 98 percent of grievances.

The jails’ issues mirror grievance problems in state prisons, where authorities send convicted people with longer sentences. An October report from the Correctional Association of New York, an independent oversight body for the state prison system, revealed myriad ways state facilities ignore formal complaints from people in their custody. Based on surveys of hundreds of incarcerated people, CANY found that prison officials frequently use technical procedural excuses to dismiss grievances, retaliate against prisoners, and miscategorize grievances to make them seem less serious, particularly when it comes to staff harassment cases.

“People routinely called it a ‘sham proceeding,’” said Jennifer Scaife, CANY’s executive director. “People who are incarcerated have very little recourse as it is. … The very system that was set up to resolve issues is failing in the perception of people it was designed to assist, and that has implications for trust and the legitimacy of the system as a whole.”

In jail, too, the grievance system could seem maddeningly circular, said Darryl Scott, who filed multiple grievances while incarcerated at the Erie County Holding Center in Buffalo in the 1990s. The local correctional staff reviewing grievances, he pointed out, are “employed by the system that you are complaining about.”

Scott said he raised issues ranging from poor medical treatment to insufficient access to recreation, and he appealed some of them to SCOC. “Nothing came out of it, just a letter,” he said. “The conditions that I filed about never changed.”

When people in county jails appeal their grievances to the state level, a SCOC specialist is supposed to investigate them and make recommendations to the Citizens’ Policy and Complaint Review Council, a sub-group of SCOC formed in the wake of the 1971 Attica prison riot. The council votes on whether to side with the jail, denying the grievance, or with the incarcerated person, granting it. If granted, SCOC compels the jail to make appropriate changes; if denied, the jail doesn’t have to do anything.

That process is supposed to take 45 business days, but delays are routine: The average grievance took 67 days in 2020, according to SCOC’s annual report. State comptroller audit reports from 2006 and 2018 scolded SCOC for blowing past its deadlines for anywhere from a quarter to half of grievances.

In 1975, the New York State Commission of Investigation had found that “a major failure” of SCOC was “that it does not investigate inmate grievances.” The council was formed that same year, along with a host of reforms triggered by the upheaval in Attica. It’s now supposed to include nine members — appointed by the governor and confirmed by the state Senate — with varying backgrounds, including a former correction officer, a formerly incarcerated person, and a veteran or mental health professional with experience of PTSD.

Currently, only two people sit on the council: Yolanda Canty, a SCOC commissioner and former Rikers Island official, and Martin Stanton, a formerly incarcerated person. The council hasn’t been fully staffed since 2017.

Those vacancies have slowed down SCOC’s work. In its 2021 annual report, SCOC said that the pandemic and “the turnover of multiple CPCRC members” led to the cancellation of several monthly meetings, which had a “significant impact” on the council’s “ability to meet the required 45 business day timeframe.”

As it rushes to clear its backlog, the SCOC council almost always sides with jails. In 2021, the most recent year with data available, SCOC rejected 4,825 grievances and partially accepted 61. It only accepted two grievance appeals in their entirety.

SCOC argues that the high denial rate for appealed grievances can be explained by the fact that most grievances with merit are decided in favor of incarcerated people at the local level — despite the fact that its own inspection reports reflect rampant violations in grievance policy across counties. The commission did not comment on the record.

Maurice Leone, the superintendent of Rochester’s Monroe County jail, said it’s in everyone’s best interest for the grievance process to work effectively.

Leone told New York Focus that he reviews grievance cases carefully, and his staff seeks to resolve most issues before they reach a formal grievance process. SCOC found that Monroe had some grievance delays in 2018 and 2019, before Leone took over, but has passed its inspections since.

In facilities where the administration ignores grievances and issues mount, Leone said, “that’s where you get adverse effects like a riot.”

“We don’t want that,” he said. “Nobody wants that.”

Eliza Fawcett is a freelance journalist who was recently a criminal justice project reporter for New York Focus. She has reported for The New York Times and the Hartford Courant.
Chris Gelardi is a reporter for New York Focus investigating the state’s criminal-legal system. His work has appeared in more than a dozen other outlets, most frequently The Nation, The Intercept, and The Appeal. He is a past recipient of awards from Columbia… more
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