“It Depends on the Outcome”: Prisoners, Grievances, and Perceptions of Justice

Published date01 March 2018
Date01 March 2018
“It Depends on the Outcome”: Prisoners,
Grievances, and Perceptions of Justice
Valerie Jenness Kitty Calavita
Social scientists have long investigated the social, cultural, and psychological
forces that shape perceptions of fairness. A vast literature on procedural justice
advances a central finding: the process by which a dispute is played out is cen-
tral to people’s perceptions of fairness and their satisfaction with dispute out-
comes. There is, however,one glaring gap in the literature. In this era of mass
incarceration, studies of how the incarcerated weigh procedural justice versus
substantive justice are rare. This article addresses this gap by drawing on
unique quantitative and qualitative data, including face-to-face interviews with
a random sample of men incarcerated in three California prisons and official
data provided by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation
(CDCR). Our mixed-methods analysis reveals that these prisoners privilege
the actual outcomes of disputes as their barometer of justice. Weargue that the
dominance of substantive outcomes in these men’s perceptions of fairness and
in their dispute satisfaction is grounded in, among other things, the high
stakes of the prison context, an argument that is confirmed by our data. These
findings do not refute the importance of procedural justice, but show the
power of institutional context to structure perceptions of and responses to fair-
ness, one of the most fundamental principles of social life.
Asense of fairness is fundamental to the human condition and
plays a significant role in modern social, economic, and political
This research was funded by the Law and Social Science Program and the Sociology Program,
National Science Foundation (SES-0849731). The authors want to th ank the California Depart-
ment of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) for granting permission to conduct this research
and for providing access to prisoners, CDCR staff, and official documents. Weare especially grate-
ful to the California prisoners who agreed to share with us their experiences and perceptions.
Finally,this article has benefitted from the capable research assistance and helpful comments pro-
vided by Sarah Bach, Ken Cruz, Julie Gerlinger,Lori Sexto n,S arahSmith, Jennifer Sumner, and
Anjuli Verma.L ori Sexton and Sarah Smith in particular played a central role in this research as
project managers during data collection and Sarah Bach, Ken Cruz, and especially Julie Gerlinger
contributed in meaningful ways to the data analyses presentedin this article. We also thank our
colleague, John Hipp, who provided valuable counsel on the sta tistical modeling.
This article was published online on 15 January 2018. Typographical errors were sub-
sequently identified that do not change the interpretation or conclusion of the article. This
notice is included in the online and print versions to indicate that both have been corrected
on 10 February 2018.
Please direct all correspondence to Valerie Jenness, Department of Criminology, Law
and Society, University of California, Irvine, 3305 Social Ecology II, Irvine, CA 92697-
7080; email: jenness@uci.edu.
Law & Society Review, Volume 52, Number 1 (2018)
C2018 Law and Society Association. All rights reserved.
institutions. Many scholars have examined the psychological, social,
cultural, and political dimensions of fairness and perceptions of
justice. A plethora of empirical findings in the sociolegal field
documents the relationship between people’s perceptions of fair
legal processes and their satisfaction with legal outcomes (Carman
2010; Casper et al. 1988; Hasisi and Weisburd 2011; Hollander-
Blumoff and Tyler 2008, 2011; Jackson et al. 2012; Johnson et al.
2014; Lind and Tyler 1988; Thibaut and Walker 1975; Tyler 1984,
1988, 1990, 1994, 2003; Tyler et al. 2014; Vidmar 1990). Accord-
ing to this scholarship, when people perceive a decision-making
process to be procedurally fair, they are likely to be satisfied with
the outcome even when it does not favor them.
There is, however, a glaring gap in this otherwise extensive and
varied literature. In this era of mass incarceration, studies of how the
incarcerated weigh procedural and substantive justice are rare. We
thus know relatively little about how those who are held in today’s
mammoth prison system perceive the fairness of disputing proce-
dures insideprison walls and of the criminaljustice system in general.
This gap in the literature is particularly glaring given thatprisons are
literally places where “justice” is supposed to be carried out.
This article addresses this gap by drawing on unique data to
unpack the complicated nature of perceptions of fairness and justice
in the prison context. Our primary data consist of confidential, face-
to-face interviews conducted with a random sample of 120 men
incarceratedin three California prisons. The grievance process is the
administrative means that prisoners in the United States may use to
contest the conditions of their confinement. This disputing process
thus providesan empirical lens through which to analyze the relative
importance of procedural and substantive justice to men in prison.
Our findings are at odds with some of the prevailing proce-
dural justice literature: not only are actual grievance outcomes
more important to these prisoners’ satisfaction than their percep-
tions of a fair process are, but in many cases the former drives
the latter. Thus, when a grievance outcome does not go their
way, as is usually the case, these prisoners infer that the process
was unfair (and vice versa). Indeed, in our interviews with them,
these men were often hard-pressed to make any distinction
between an unfavorable outcome and an unfair process.
The arguments we advance to explain these deviations of our
findings from those that dominate the procedural justice field are
contextual in nature. Prison is a hierarchical total institution where
the stakes are high, where autonomy for prisoners is deliberately
curtailed, and where prisoner appellants rarely prevail. We argue
that these high stakes, limited autonomy, and asymmetrical power
relations comprise an environment in which the outcome of a pris-
oner’s grievance can sometimes literally mean life or death. In this
42 Prisoners, Grievances, and Perceptions of Justice
context, the possibility of procedural fairness is either scoffed at by
prisoners or subordinated to the more important goal of, as pris-
oner James Little told us, “getting what you’re supposed to have
coming.” This constellation of characteristics is in some ways unique
to the prison environment, and we do not argue that our findings
are directly generalizable to all settings. Nor do we argue that proce-
dural justice is not important to these prisoners. To the contrary, we
are advancing an empirically driven argument for more context-
specific research into perceptions of justice—research that may
reveal that some aspects of the prison environment are applicable to
other settings, including other total institutions (Goffman 1961).
In previous work (Calavita and Jenness 2015), we describe the
grievance process in detail and document the “pyramid of dis-
putes” as prisoners name, blame, and make claims about problems
in prison, as well as exploring both prisoners’ and staff ’s framing
of grievances (see also Jenness and Calavita 2017). However, that
work does not address the critical issue of how these prisoners per-
ceive fairness and justice in the disputing process, specifically how
they weigh procedural and substantive justice. Our current focus
on prisoners’ perceptions of disputing justice presents a contrast to
findings in much of the procedural justice literature and reveals
the perils of over-generalization. As such, it underscores the pro-
foundly contextual nature of perceptions of justice.
In the next section, we outline the mechanics of the Califor-
nia prisoner grievance process. Following that, we situate our
central analytic concerns in the larger literature on procedural
justice. We then provide an overview of our research site, data,
and methods of analysis. Next, we turn to our findings and anal-
ysis. Throughout our analysis, we highlight the differences
between our findings and those that dominate the procedural
justice literature, and bring to bear a “situated justice” perspec-
tive (Berrey et al. 2012) on those differences. In the conclusion,
we make the case for future research on procedural and substan-
tive justice perceptions in various other venues.
Mechanics of the Prisoner Grievance System
A prisoner grievance system
was established in California in
1973 at the height of the prisoner rights movement. Prisoner
rights advocates and others advocated for an appeals system on
the grounds that it would provide a nonviolent avenue for pris-
oners to contest the conditions of their confinement, and would
The terms “prisoner grievance system” and “prisoner appeals system” are used
interchangeably here.
Jenness & Calavita 43

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