A “Safe”Outlet for Prisoner Discontent:
How Prison Grievance Procedures Stymied Prison Organizing During the 1970s
[Forthcoming in Law & Social Inquiry]

North Carolina Prisoners’ Labor Union Newsletter vol. 1, no. 2, James Holshouser Papers, North Carolina State Archives.

North Carolina Prisoners’ Labor Union Newsletter vol. 1, no. 2, James Holshouser Papers, North Carolina State Archives.

This article demonstrates how civil liberties lawyers’ efforts to address the complaints of imprisoned people in the 1970s inadvertently helped provide state attorneys with tools they used to stymie prisoners’ organizing efforts. Using North Carolina as a case study, I explain why a diverse range of legal actors—including civil liberties lawyers, federal judges, and state attorneys—supported the creation of prison grievance procedures. I then reveal how state attorneys successfully used them, once implemented, to argue that because the procedures offered a seemingly fair, institutional avenue for imprisoned people to express their grievances, prison administrators could ban prison organizing without violating prisoners’ First Amendment rights to free speech and assembly. The history of prison grievance procedures, I suggest, highlights the limits of constitutional rights litigation for achieving social change, offers a new approach to the study of legal endogeneity, and helps explain the demise of the prisoners’ rights movement.