Audit: California prison wardens don't give robust attention to grievances despite being given $10M

Salinas Valley State Prison grievance that went ignored.

California's Office of the Inspector General on Tuesday criticized the wardens throughout the state for not paying enough heed to grievances filed by incarcerated people despite being awarded nearly $10 million for just that issue.

Some of the complaints that were not referred to the unit include allegations of excessive force, discrimination, harassment, discourteous treatment and sexual misconduct. 

Specifically, the OIG, which is an oversight body of California's prison system, narrowed in on the $9.8 million the governor approved of in June 2019 to spend on beefing up the Allegation Inquiry Management Section, or AIMS. That is the unit tasked with hearing grievances from incarcerated people. The OIG laid out their findings in an 83-page report. 

But despite being given that money, Inspector General Roy Wesley found that inmate complaints are not listened to or investigated in a robust or meaningful way. Plus, Wesley found, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation also has serious issues tracking data to analyze trends or perform deep assessments of its work. 

"We are deeply concerned about the low rate at which wardens determined their staff violated policy, which raises serious issues about the overall fairness of the process," Wesley wrote.

For example, incarcerated people filed 50,412 grievances during the five-month period from April 1 through August 31, 2020, according to prison data. 

Wardens decided that 2,339 of these grievances, or 4.6%, actually alleged staff misconduct but chose to refer only 541 of the total number, or 23% percent, to the unit.

That means, the Inspector General wrote, the wardens elected not to refer the remaining 1,798 grievances.

"Ultimately, the lack of referrals undermined AIMS’s reason for existence—increasing the independence of the process—and diminished the new unit’s effectiveness in making that process more independent," Wesley wrote.

While the department had pledged that the unit would perform 474 inquiries per month for a total of nearly 5,700 per year, the Inspector General found that the unit opened just 86 inquiries per month or 18% of the projected volume.

All this, the Inspector General found, prisons collectively received 468 staff misconduct grievances per month, nearly equal to the volume of inquiries the department had initially projected the specialized grievance unit was capable of performing.

When cases were referred, wardens found that their staff violated policy in only 22, or 1.7%, of the time, the report found.

"Our experience monitoring the department’s formal disciplinary process over the last 15 years," Wesley wrote, "leads us to conclude that an exoneration rate of more than 98 out of every 100 instances demonstrates a lack of fairness in the process." 

In response, CDCR Secretary Kathleen Allison said she takes every allegation of staff misconduct very seriously and is committed to ensuring that all grievances are reviewed fairly.

Allison acknowledged that the prison system had challenges setting up the unit in the beginning but they feel comfortable that wardens are not purposely circumventing the new grievance process. The CDCR response said they felt several of the criticisms were premature. 

Regardless, the Inspector General offered several suggestions on how to remedy some of the challenges. The office said that CDCR should completely restructure its grievance routing process, requiring that grievances go directly to the specialized unit and not through the wardens.

The department could create separate lock boxes for staff misconduct grievances and instruct staff who collect those grievances to send them to the unit electronically.

This would enable every allegation of staff misconduct to bypass the subjective determinations wardens and other prison staff make while reviewing grievances to decide whether they meet the definition of staff misconduct, the Inspector General suggested.

Lisa Fernandez is a reporter for KTVU. Email Lisa at or call her at 510-874-0139. Or follow her on Twitter @ljfernandez