TIPTON, Mo. - Recent data obtained by ABC 17 News shows the number of inmate grievances statewide is on track to hit a decade-long high.
It comes the same year Tipton Correctional Center and Crossroads Correctional Center experienced massive turmoil that the Department of Corrections defined as “disturbances.” At Tipton, authorized visitation was suspended this summer after offenders refused to return to their housing units and corrections officers said they damaged one unit.
Crossroads has been under varying degrees of lockdown since May 12 after doors were damaged during unrest. Visits at Crossroads were also suspended until last month.
Records show the number of Informal Resolution Requests, or IRRs, submitted in 2018 will nearly double those of 2017.
However, many inmates, family members and advocates said the system that is meant to allow inmates an avenue to air their complaints is unfair and ineffective.
How it works
The grievance process starts with the filing of an IRR, a form that includes the problem or complaint, as well as a proposed solution.
That form must be submitted within about two weeks of the problem happening.
What follows can take months, as many as 200 days, to play out before all the inmate's appeals are exhausted.
The flowchart below outlines the process:
Why inmates say the system is flawed
On the night of July 4, multiple inmates at Tipton Correctional Center were involved in a protest that the Department of Corrections labeled “a disturbance.”
“In order for us to get our voices heard, we ended up sitting outside on the yard,” said Kevin Totty, a former inmate at Tipton.
Prison and inmate property was destroyed that night, including the near-total destruction of housing unit No.18.
“All of the housing units in zones 3 and 4 were all taken over by the offenders because the officers were told to evacuate the housing units,” said a corrections officer that did not want to be identified because of concerns of retaliation. “They damaged everything, they stole everything they could from the officers and the case workers’ offices and they were writing with markers and pens all over the walls.”
After the situation was resolved, several inmates who denied any involvement in the disturbance filed IRRs saying their own property was destroyed despite it being locked up for security.
Some even accused corrections officers of destroying inmates’ property in retaliation for the damage to the housing unit.
Sharri Finnell is the mother of an inmate who was living in Unit 18 when the disturbance occurred.
She said the IRR process was useless and is fundamentally flawed.
“They are denying that they had anything to with the destruction of the property,” Finnell said. “They are saying that staff members were not in that house at that time and so therefore, they are not responsible.”
Finnell heads a group of relatives and friends that advocates for inmate rights at Tipton Correctional Center.
She says the grievance process boils down to a he said/she said system that allows corrections officers and staff to operate free from accountability.
“That’s a locked-in facility,” said Finnell. “They do whatever they want to do. They’re not answerable, they’re not accountable because they have a badge.”
Department of Corrections director Anne Precythe disagrees that there’s any problem with accountability in the ranks.
“I can tell you as director, we take all complaints whether they are staff or offender driven, we take all of them seriously and we do look into them and we do resolve them in the way that’s most appropriate for whatever occurred,” Precythe said. “I do not believe that my staff were damaging offender property. That’s not the way we operate in the Department of Corrections. We will see what the investigation shows us, but I really don’t have much to comment on that right now.”
The state labels its Citizens Advisory Committee on Corrections “an objective and impartial source for the resolution of grievances and concerns.” However, reaching the committee members isn’t easy.
The phone number listed for the committee is that of the main switchboard for the Missouri Department of Corrections and as of Monday, all of the listed board seats are either vacant or term-expired by more than four years.
Efficiency of the grievance process
Corrections spokeswoman Karen Pojmann said all the IRRs are up to date in the department’s files.
Of the 1,640 received at Tipton Correctional Center between Nov. 1 and Aug. 31:
- 424 were resolved by discussion before reaching the grievance stage
- 128 were satisfied
- 40 were abandoned
- Six were withdrawn
- 29 exceeded the time limit
- Five were submitted in error
- 1,008 were unsatisfied
Precythe said all grievances that travel through the system are are dealt with appropriately.
“Protecting inmates at every facility is one of our top priorities in the department,” Precythe said. “We’re responsible for the care and well-being of everybody that’s entrusted to us.”
Sharri Finnell said more than 30 family members of inmates have filed complaints with the FBI over various accusations under abuse of power and public corruption.
The FBI would not confirm or deny the existence of an ongoing investigation.
The full interview with Missouri Department of Corrections director Anne Precythe can be viewed below: