Inmates retain certain limited rights despite being in prison.  In order to pursue them, you need to use special forms known by the administrative numbers assigned to them by the BOP.  The forms range from BP 8 to BP 11 and go up in number as you move through the process until you reach the national office in Washington, DC.  You’re precluded from access to the court system until you’ve exhausted all of the administrative remedies, regardless of how serious the issue may be.  The process can take up to a year or longer, as each level takes advantage of permitted extensions and delays and is designed to exhaust and frustrate you until you go away.  That said, you can occasionally be successful if you’re consistent, persistent and have a legitimate grievance.  Oftentimes it is helpful to have an inmate clerk from the law library assist you since the process is very detail oriented and picayune, requiring everything from the correct presentation to an exact number of extra copies.  Forms are rejected for technicalities rather than substance more often than not.

The process begins with an email or Cop Out (a/k/a BP 8 – a handwritten form used to communicate what you might otherwise express in an email to prison staff[1]), indicating a grievance or concern you’d like addressed.  In fact, many issues are relatively simple and get resolved at this level.  Missing mail, Trulinks terminals out of order, receiving incorrect meds, etc.  Cop Outs are used to demonstrate that you attempted to resolve the issue prior to using the formal administrative process (i.e. you told someone and gave them a chance to fix it).  Just to give you an idea, I filed Cop Outs regarding broken air conditioning and ice machines that went unfixed for almost a year, overcrowding and other quality of life issues that arose from time-to-time.  Cop Outs are also used to make certain requests such as:

  1. Signing up for a prison job,
  2. Asking to move cells or bunks,
  3. Designating your religious preference or requesting common fare meals (given to a chaplain),
  4. Signing up for a course in Education, Recreation or Psychology, among many other things (given to a respective department CO).

You get Cop Out forms from your Counselor, but they’re also typically available from the head COs of the various prison Departments.  Except as indicated above, Cop Outs are handed to your Counselor. 

If your concern is not fully addressed to your satisfaction within five business days, you may then request a BP 8-1/2 from your Counselor, indicating your concern, how you tried to informally resolve the issue (the Cop Out/email explained above, including a copy of such), and what remedy you’re seeking.  This form is handed back to your Counselor but followed up on and replied to by the Unit Manager.  

The BP 9 is requested from your Counselor and may be filed for any unresolved BP 8-1/2.  This form goes to the Warden who has 20 days to reply, although she or he has a right to an automatic 20-day extension.  Sometimes they even go beyond this time frame.  This is where you can get caught in your first Catch 22 because while you’re now theoretically allowed to interpret that as a rejection, the Region (the next step) won’t rule on your complaint without input from the Warden.  When this occurs, gently pepper the Warden (via email) and your Counselor.  That typically gets the ball rolling.

If the Warden does not rule in your favor, you then ask your Counselor for a BP 10 which gets sent to the Regional Office.  They have 30 calendar days to reply (plus extensions).  The BP 11 is the next step, going to the National Office and they have 40 calendar days (plus extensions) to respond.  Just to give you an idea of how this typically plays out, Menachem M. mailed out a BP 10 on September 30th, acknowledged as received October 10th.  The reply wasn’t sent from Region until January 15th with Menachem receiving it on February 10th – almost 3-1/2 months, and that was just the BP 10.   

Moreover, the clock only begins running once the Regional or National Office receives the form, which can “strangely” take weeks, with many forms “mysteriously” never even making it to their destination, getting “lost in the mail.”  Do you think it might have something to do with the prison mail running through R&D?[2]  I’m no conspiracy theorist but the dots connect pretty clearly on this one.  So, as you can see, if God forbid, you’re pursuing something serious like an untreated health issue, you might have suffered major consequences before the process is complete. 

The BP process is also used to fight any Disciplinary Action taken against you (a shot).  It works the same way as a complaint, moving up the daisy chain until you get the infraction removed or exhaust your options.

In some cases, you’re allowed to skip the BP 8-1/2 and BP 9 process by going straight to something called a Sensitive 10.  This would apply to cases of discrimination, fears of retaliation by prison staff, or other issues that could materially impact your safety or wellbeing.

Many inmates do not bother pursuing administrative remedies since it is a huge hassle, can get expensive because of all the copies, postage and the cost of hiring an inmate Law Clerk to help, or out of fear of retaliation by prison staff.  However, sometimes, at some point, you get fed up.  I went through the process almost a dozen times, and actually got results on two, speeding up the fixing and replacement of the air conditioners and ice machines that had been broken down for almost a year.  However, being known as an instigator definitely caught up with me when it came to my halfway house recommendation.  It’s an arbitrary decision, perfect for meting out retaliation. One other helpful hint is that your state’s US Senators and the Congressperson representing the district of your release address have aides who research inmate complaints.  They WILL follow up with a letter to the prison, asking for a response to your concern.  The prison typically responds with double-speak indicating your issue has been addressed and, at times, it will be as well.  It also ensures any future concerns will be taken more seriously.     

[1] Many COs insist you use Cop Outs since Cop Out forms preceded the email system and old habits die hard.  That may also help explain why some departments rarely answer inmate emails. 

[2] Inmates sometimes sneak forms out through visitors to be mailed from the Post Office.  However, even many of these get “lost” as well, making it clear that Region is also complicit.