- Be the Master of Your Own Paperwork
Keeping good records (1) helps you track your medical condition and your communications with your doctor; (2) provides proof of any shortcoming in your access to proper medical care; and (3) creates a record that you have followed the prison’s rules for solving problems and the courts’ requirement that you “exhaust all remedies” before filing a lawsuit if you choose to do so.
A. Keep Copies of Your Prison Records
It is very important to keep all copies of all documents related to the problem you are trying to resolve. If you don’t already have them, you may wish to request copies of your medical or administrative complaint records from the prison. Important documents to keep include medical records; x-rays; co-pays; administrative grievances; letters to family members, prison officials, and advocates about your medical condition or care; request forms; etc. If possible, make a second copy of these documents and send them to someone you trust outside of the prison such as a family member or friend.
You can request your medical records be provided to you or anyone of your choice by filling out and filing an “Authorization For Release Of Protected Health Information” form (in CA it forms CDCR 7385). We recommend that you complete this form and share it with a trusted friend on the outside before you have any medical emergencies. You can limit which records are released by specifying a time period or medical issue. That person can turn the document into the prison immediately if they wish to access your records now, or they can hold on to it for later use. Prison staff will be much more likely to speak with your family remember or friend about your medical care if they have this signed release.
B. Keep a Diary
It can also be helpful to keep a journal or medical diary of your experiences. Write down as much detail as you can, such as date and time of the event or appointment, names and positions of people involved, medications prescribed or taken, symptoms experienced, forms submitted, etc. For recording symptoms, it is important to describe them precisely and accurately. This helps you obtain proper diagnosis and treatment, as well as to record a timeline of your condition. Constructing a timeline of the problem and your attempts to resolve it can help you better track your health and will make it much easier to file an effective grievance and, should you choose, a lawsuit. If possible, it is a good idea to periodically make copies of this journal (even handwritten copies) and send them to someone whom you trust.
C. Show Prior, Outside Medical Records to Prison Medical Officials
If you had a medical condition before entering the prison, you may be able to provide prison
medical officials with records of your previous care. This can be helpful in convincing the prison to continue the same type of level of care. To do this, you will need to call or write your outside medical care provider to request a copy of that office’s medical records release form. A family member or supporter on the outside may be able to help you obtain this form. Complete, sign, and return the form to the outside medical provider’s office. You can limit which records are released by specifying a time period or medical issue. The outside medical office will then mail or fax your records to the location that you requested. If you wish, you may ask that your medical records be released directly to your prison doctor or the prison’s Chief Medical Officer. However, you may wish to have the records sent to a family member outside of the prison so that they can make a copy before providing them to the prison doctors.
D. File Administrative Grievances
Filing a “Request For Interview” form seeks to resolve an issue through scheduling informal interviews with staff, asking a question of a staff member, or requesting items or services. Staff members sometimes view this form as less than confrontational than a grievance and can be more likely to respond in a helpful way.
If your request is unclear, staff may refuse to answer your question or respond productively. When filing the form, your request should clearly state the issue and the service you would like and specify any documents attached to the form. Once you file the “Request For Interview” form, a staff member is required to respond to it. If you do not like the response you receive, you can file a second Request with the staff member’s supervisor.
Once you’ve tried the more informal “Request For Interview” route, you may consider submitting a formal grievance form that documents your complaints. On this form, you can specify your issues, document problems, and request certain solutions from the prison staff. All incarcerated people have the right to file a grievance on any issue or concern related to confinement and to request relief. Most prisons have a time limit when filing a grievance, so make sure you meet the time limit set by your prison.
Although formal grievances often do not result in the desired response, following the proper grievance procedure shows that you have attempted to follow the prison’s rules for resolving problems. Additionally, if you ever try to file a lawsuit, the first step is to file a grievance to demonstrate that you have “exhausted your administrative remedies.”
When writing your grievance, be sure to clearly describe your situation. The following questions are to guide your writing:
- What are your condition(s) and/or symptom(s)?
- When did each event occur?
- Who was involved?
- What have you done so far to achieve solutions?
Providing evidence to support your claim can be very helpful. If you attach any proof, such as copies and forms, specify that you are including documents and indicate which ones.
You may also want to consider being interviewed by a staff member, as it will allow the prison to ask you any clarifying questions that can further support your grievance.
If your grievance is successfully submitted and processed, the form will be given a log number.
Sometimes, however, prison staff “misplaces” a grievance before you receive the log number.
To create evidence that you submitted a grievance, you can submit a “Request” form along with
your submission of your original grievance, and if possible, within the timeline, make a copy of the grievance for your records. On your “Request” you will want to indicate what the grievance said, when you submitted it, and which member of the prison staff is responsible for delivering it. That is, a “Request” form can be used to request that a specific staff member turns in your grievance and it can act as a receipt for your grievance, especially if you’re in a prison where the “Request” forms have to be signed by an officer. With these two steps, even if you are not given a log number for your grievance, you will have evidence that you submitted it because you will have both your own copy of the grievance and your goldenrod/copy of the “Request” the form that you attached to it. This can help you to comply with the time limits for filing a grievance or to track failures of prison staff to log the grievance.
E. Follow Up Verbal Communications with Written Communications
You or your outside supporter verbally speaks with someone regarding your problem, it is a good idea to follow up these conversations with a brief letter in order to create a record of your efforts to resolve the issue. For example, if your outside supporter calls the prison and speaks to an officer about your situation, ask them to write a follow-up letter or e-mail to the prison official summarizing the conversation. You can then ask your outside supporter to send you a copy of your records, and you can ask them to keep a copy for their own records. See the example below.
Dear Officer Smith,
I am writing to follow up on our telephone conversation, which happened on April 3, 2018, at approximately 2:30 pm, regarding my son, John Doe, X12345. During this call, I notified you that my son has been waiting three weeks for the results of his chest x-ray. You told me you would look into this matter and try to help him get an appointment with his yard doctor. Thank you for your attention to this matter. If you have further questions, please contact me at (916)911-1515.
- Advocating Prison Officials
You and your outside supporters, whether they are family or concerned friends, may find it helpful to contact prison administrators on your behalf. Contacting prison officials puts them on notice that you are experiencing a problem and that they have a responsibility to address your concerns. As you probably know, incarcerated people sometimes report that they suffer retaliation from staff as a result of speaking about the violation of their rights. Use your discretion to determine whether this is the most effective action in your case.
Whenever you or your supporter’s contact officials about your condition, keep copies of the correspondence or follow-up letters summarizing and phone conversations with these individuals. If you are keeping a medical diary, make sure to keep track of all contacts with officials, including dates of contact/call/correspondence, the name of the person contacted, and a brief summary of the conversation.
A. Contact the Office of the Ombudsman
The Office of the Ombudsman reports directly to the Secretary of your state prison. The Ombudsman’s mission states that the office works independently as an intermediary to provide individuals with a confidential avenue to address complaints and resolve issues at the lowest possible level and proposes policy and procedural changes when systemic issues are identified.
When contacting the Office of the Ombudsman, provide as much of the following information as possible:
- Your name and prison number
- Location of prison
- A phone number, if possible
- Brief description of the situation
- The log numbers of relevant grievances
- An overview of what had been done to resolve the issue
You can also contact other prison officials. You may consider writing directly to your prison’s warden of the chief medical officer as well;
- Get Help From Outside the Prison System
You and your outside supporters, whether they are family or concerned friends, may find it helpful to contact other government officials on your behalf. Contacting other government officials can sometimes help because they may be able to influence the prison administration As you probably know, incarcerated people sometimes report that they suffer retaliation from staff as a result of speaking out about a violation of their rights, so use your discretion to determine whether this is the most effective action in your case.
As always, if you decide to contact officials, be sure to keep copies of any correspondence and write follow-up letters.
Here are Some questions to consider in an effective advocacy letter:
- What is the nature of the problem?
- How long has this problem been happening?
- How is the problem affecting you? Why is this problem creating a difficult situation for you?
- What attempts have you made to solve the problem and how has the prison responded to your efforts?
- What do you want to happen in order to resolve the problem?
- Do you have copies of any supporting documents that will help to further explain your situation?
A. Contact the Office of the Inspector General
Office of the Inspector General (OIG), which is independent of the Department of Corrections (DOC), was established to investigate problems in the DOC. They describe themselves as being responsible for “rigorously investigating and auditing the DOC to uncover criminal conduct, administrative wrongdoing, poor management practices, waste, fraud, and other abuses by staff, supervisors, and management.” In order “to bring public transparency into the operation of the state’s correctional system, the OIG posts the findings of every audit and large-scale investigation on their website.” The OIG does not provide legal advice.
Complaints are handled in one of the following ways. (1) Your complaint may be referred back to the DOC Office of Internal Affairs if they have not previously investigated the issue. (2) Even if the complaint has been investigated by the DOC’S Internal Affairs, the OIG may still send the complaint back again for further investigation. (3) The OIG may investigate the complaint directly. (4) The complaint may be referred to law enforcement authorities if the complaint involves criminal misconduct. (5) If the OIG finds after a preliminary review that there is insufficient evidence to support your claim, your inquiry may be closed without further action
The OIG also claims that it will investigate allegations of retaliation against persons who have filed complaints with their office. However, it operates limited resources and cannot assure anyone’s protection from retaliatory ads.
B. Contact Elected Representatives
You or your supporters may also write to members of the state legislature, who are responsible for overseeing the DOC. You will have to find the appropriate person to contact in your state.
C. File Complaints with State Medical licensing Agencies
If you have concerns about specific prison health staff, you may consider filing complaints with the appropriate state licensing boards. These agencies are designed to monitor medical professionals in order to protect the public (which includes incarcerated people) and ensure that medical professionals are providing care consistent with their licenses. There is no guarantee that by filing a complaint you will get the specific care you desire or that the medical staff person will be reprimanded. However, by filing with the appropriate board, you are creating a record and lodging an official complaint with outside state agencies about the difficulties incarcerated people experience getting adequate medical care at your prison (where you are housed). This can help other prisoners later. You will have to research the appropriate agency’s address in your state.
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