Prison

“If you can help our prison system avoid stacks of frivolous prisoner complaints, would you? If you can help our inmates get better conditions in prison, would you?” These are the questions posed by UT-Austin English Emerita professor Dr. Terri LeClercq. “I would,” she says, “and I am.”

In her latest publication, LeClercq has taken the initiative to point out a fixable problem within the prison system that affects prisoners, prison workers, court officials and administrators.

According to LeClercq, one out of 12 Americans are in the prison system, and inmates do not always get the essential or special care that they need. In a recent interview, LeClercq explains that prisons are not meant to be places that merely house and feed bad people. “When someone commits a crime, they are removed from the society they hurt. Prison is a punishment.” She continues to explain that this specific punishment should not relinquish all rights of these individuals, only the rights they had as a part of society.

LeClercq has spent 10 years working on “Prison Grievances: When to Write, How to Write,” a beautifully illustrated graphic novel that is both entertaining and educational. LeClercq wrote “Prison Grievances” at a fifth grade reading level so inmates at any level may understand the message. The majority of the novel is through the view of a pro-bono lawyer who sees the mistreatment of prisoners. He volunteers to help inmates understand the rights they still have. Through this, LeClercq educates her readers of those same rights.

Aside from the prisoners’ rights, LeClercq also teaches about writing in her novel. “If inmates don’t know how to write about their problem,” LeClercq says, “they can’t get help.” According to LeClercq, taxpayers spend $27,000 per inmate per year, and even more if inmates are sick or injured. When prisoners write to courts about their problems, court administrators have to read through loads of letters that are illegible or do not meet guidelines.

“That’s a waste,” LeClercq says. “It’s a waste of the inmates’ appeal, it’s a waste of the courts’ time and it’s a waste of taxpayers’ money.”

The purpose of LeClercq’s “Prison Grievances” is to actually teach prisoners on how to write to the courts about their problems properly. “We want inmates to learn their rights,” LeClercq says. “We want them to either write their complaint right or don’t write it at all.”

To give an example of the real need for such education, LeClercq speaks of “Teddy Bear” cases, which are often compared to the story of the “Boy Who Cried Wolf.” In Teddy Bear cases, prisoners draw up frivolous grievances about items that the system either cannot or will not pay for. The representatives who review these grievances consider them a waste of time, and if such complaints continue long enough, the representatives eventually stop taking the prisoners’ requests seriously.

In the back pages of “Prison Grievances,” LeClercq included a checklist for prisoners to review and decide whether their specific case is something that can be taken care of. The idea is to reduce the amount of Teddy Bear cases so the representatives’ focus can remain on real issues, such as work-related incidents that need medical attention, abuse from guards or other prisoners and mental illnesses for example.

Throughout the last 10 years, prison and court administrators, attorneys and the formerly incarcerated have reviewed and approved “Prison Grievances,” and it will be available online around January 2013. Supporters of LeClercq’scause have the option of pledging $10 for their own copy donating copies of “Prison Grievances” to prison libraries around the country.

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