Webster’s New World Dictionary and Thesaurus defines “impunity” as: exemption from punishment, harm, etc.
This is exactly what somebody would possess if he or she were entrusted to police a group of people but was not held accountable in regard to his or her conduct toward that group.
Officer No Name is a mountain of a man, with a license to do as he wills. I’ve served enough time to recognize the rookies from the vets based on the subtlest of mannerisms. The second I beheld No Name, I knew he was no rookie. He had probably been working in prisons longer than I’ve been living in them, and at 34, I’ve spent most of my adult life behind bars.
Some officers support grievances; Officer No Name does not. Here in the Monroe Correctional Complex in Washington State, a wooden box sits bolted to the wall in the hallway outside my living unit with prisoner complaint forms which can be submitted for any one of five reasons listed on the back of the paper. They are as follows:
- Application of policies.
- Lack of policies, rules or procedures that directly affect the grievant’s own living conditions.
- Actions of employees, contract staff, or volunteers over whom the facility or supervising office has jurisdiction, including retaliation against the grievant for his/her good faith participation in the grievance program.
- Actions of other incarcerated persons.
The vets don’t usually need help doing their jobs, but since COVID-19 has posed the greatest threat to long-term care facilities like nursing homes and prisons, things in my home have had to change. When the world went on lockdown, so did this prison. Religious services, visitation, educational programming and many of the prisoner jobs that center around them have been shut down for months to minimize the inflow of potential COVID-19 carriers.
This has also confined the population largely to their living units where phones, showers and kiosks with email access are in short supply. Fights have broken out as residents were cut off while communicating with their loved ones. As a result, those who do not want to get involved in the fighting are not able to use the phones. For this reason, the Department of Corrections has instructed guards to give prisoners access to these amenities during certain times throughout the day when they were previously off limits. It appeared Officer No Name hadn’t received the same instructions as his coworkers, however, because when one such time was announced, he denied the unit to which he was assigned showers, phone access or even an answer as to why. So I explained to him what the new policy stated.
His response: “Oh yeah? Go away.”
I asked if it would help if his boss explained it to him.
His response: “Go away.”
“Could I have your name for a grievance, then?” I asked.
“No. Go away.” Though Officer No Name’s initial actions were minor and didn’t necessarily warrant a complaint, his response got me thinking: I wonder if there exists a policy mandating guards provide their names in the event that a prisoner wants to report them for misconduct.
A little later, I approached him again and asked, “Just so I’m clear, you’re refusing to tell me your name so I can’t grieve you, right?”
His response: “Yes. Go away.” As it turns out, No Name was not in violation of any policy. There is nothing in writing that requires they provide their names, which means if they don’t want to participate in the grievance program, they can easily opt out.
Personally, I’ve only submitted a small handful of complaints, and mostly in regard to the mailroom attempting to keep me from sending out my work for publication. Each time, the DOC grievance coordinator has sent it back, informing me it was denied, or the issue was “ungrievable.” So finally, I reached out to the Washington State Office of Corrections ombudsman, whose literature claims “is independent from DOC,” and “can help resolve complaints related to DOC actions or inactions that negatively impact the health, safety, welfare and rights of incarcerated individuals.”
Their response: “Write a grievance.” At this point, I’m thinking: Department of Corrections staff may just be the most empowered group of people in the United States of America, as they can literally opt out of being reported for misconduct. Moreover, it’s nearly impossible for the people they police to raise a complaint about them, without first going through them. True impunity is an officer without a name.
Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. The Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned. The work is lightly edited but has not been otherwise fact-checked.