location: publications / books / Justice Behind the Walls / Sector 1 / Chapter 3 Corrections, The Courts and the Constitution / Title The Prisoner Grievance Process and the Office of the Correctional Investigator

Mary Campbell suggests that another important aspect of the CI's office was "the consequent pressure it put on other parts of the system to become more visible and accountable in dealing with inmates -- the terms of the appointment required that all other legal or administrative avenues of redress were normally to be exhausted first, which created systemic pressure for such alternative mechanisms to be created and to function effectively" (p. 300). Although the internal grievance procedure was created in 1974, the House of Commons Sub-Committee on the Penitentiary System in Canada, in its 1977 report, was very critical of its effectiveness.

At present, the grievance procedure is so unwieldy and ineffective that it might well be creating more problems than it solves. An inmate with a grievance must fill out a form which may be dealt with by one or all of the four levels of authority from the keeper at the institution, on to the institutional director, to the regional director, and finally up to the office of the Commissioner. If the grievance passes through all these channels, the inmate may have to wait many months for a reply which, very often, leaves him no better satisfied than when he began. ( Report to Parliament at 97)

Following the Report to Parliament, the grievance mechanism was streamlined by reducing the number of levels of review from four to three. However, the procedures continued to suffer from a number of serious shortcomings which were identified by Joan Nuffield, a government researcher, just two years after the Report to Parliament.

First, unlike an appeal to a court, for example, this procedure does not subject the dispute to a review by an authority independent of the present system. Apart from missing the benefit which can accrue from an impartial view of the matter, this type of mechanism runs the risk of becoming a system of almost routine ratification of one level's decision-making by the next level in the hierarchy. Each appeal level may to some extent share both the same perceptions of the dispute and the perceived need to provide support and reassurance to staff at other levels, whose jobs are difficult at the best of times. Even where such a "ratifying" function is not in fact the case, it may easily be perceived as such by inmates, thereby reducing almost to a nullity the essential credibility of the procedure in the eyes of inmates. Second, this type of internal mechanism does not provide for legally binding orders to be issued as to the matter in dispute. At most, a grievance filed through this system would result in a directive from the Commissioner of Corrections. This constitutes a lesser assurance of either awareness on the part of staff, or compliance, particularly troubling in view of the Sub-Committee's finding that the Directives are "confusing, poorly organized, difficult to understand and interpret, and generally unsatisfactory as a proper framework for ordering the prison community." (Joan Nuffield, Annual Report of the Correctional Investigator, 1977-78 [Ottawa: Information Canada, 1978] at 25)

The House of Commons Sub-Committee had also faulted the grievance procedures on the ground that prisoners had no voice in the process. "So long as the inmate feels he has no input into the system which is governing his life, he will remain frustrated and embittered and the result of this frustration and bitterness inevitably results in the kind of violence presenting plaguing our penitentiaries" ( Report to Parliament at 98). The Sub-Committee, based on evidence it heard on the operation of a successful grievance model used in several United States' prisons, recommended a reformed process for Canadian prisons, one that would give prisoners a greater role and also provide for binding outside mediation.

Following the Sub-Committee's recommendation, a pilot project was established in Saskatchewan Penitentiary to test a new grievance procedure. In contrast to the existing procedure which operated entirely along a paper trail, the pilot procedure placed a heavy emphasis on both informal resolution of grievances through personal contact and mediation among the parties and also on the oral presentation of the grievance by the prisoner before the Grievance Committee. The process involved a prisoner filing a grievance with the assistance of the Grievance Clerk who was a prisoner. Informal mediation was then attempted through the Grievance Co-ordinator who was a staff member. If informal mediation failed, the complainant was referred to the Grievance Committee, consisting of two staff and two prisoner members, who convened a hearing and having heard the submissions from the prisoner and the staff respondent, either resolved the matter or referred a resolution to the warden. If the prisoner disagreed with the Committee's decision or recommendation, he could appeal the matter to the warden and if dissatisfied with the warden's decision, the matter was then referred to an outside review board. The outside review board consisted of three members. One was nominated by the prisoner, one by the prison administration and the chairperson was a member of the local Citizens Advisory Committee. The procedures called for the chairperson to attempt to get the other two members of the board to agree on a solution and if they could not, the chairperson cast the deciding vote.

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