North Carolina Department of Correction - Correction News - February 1999

Resolving grievances is a demanding job

RALEIGH — Handling inmate grievances day after day can be a stressful job, but Reggie Mewborn, takes it all in stride. Assistant director for the Inmate Grievance Resolution Board, Mewborn credits his background with the department, his positive leadership and his healthy lifestyle for his ability to do his job with relatively little stress.

Before accepting the position with Inmate Grievances in 1994, Mewborn worked as a probation and parole officer, a training instructor with OSDT, assistant superintendent for programs at Polk Youth Institution, assistant command manager for the youth command and assistant geographic command manager.

Mewborn said all this experience enhances his ability to effectively investigate inmate grievances and to work with prison administrators to find the best way to resolve complaints.

"I feel fortunate to have had the wealth of experience with DOC that I’ve had," he said. "I’m able to have a real broad perspective of what goes on in a prison. I’m able to see through the issues and look at a problem from all sides, from the inmate’s view and from the administrator’s view."

Mewborn said his background working for the Division of Prisons sometimes gives him an edge when trying to resolve inmate grievances. "I’m very familiar with many of the superintendents," he said. "Most of them I have known for years and worked with for years. So when we call them, they know me, and I know them which helps a lot. They know that we are not adversarial."

While some staff dread receiving a call or visit from members of the Inmate Grievance Resolution Board, Mewborn said they really have nothing to fear.

"We are not here to beat down staff or chastise them," he said. "We are an agency for fairness. We try to see and deal with the facts of a case and work through the problem for the benefit of all. Our goal is to try to resolve grievances before they get to the point of litigation."

Established by the General Assembly in 1988, the Inmate Grievance Resolution Board was created to ensure that inmates have a procedure through which they can file complaints. Finesse Couch, director of the Inmate Grievance Resolution Board, said the board serves a necessary and important function for the department.

"With structured sentencing and the increase in violent offenders serving longer sentences, a real danger could be created for staff if there was no process for resolving legitimate concerns of inmates," she said. "We are not inmate advocates – we are here to mediate disputes. If an inmate seeks relief through a meritorious grievance, we want him to get that relief. If the inmate is wrong, we tell him."

Couch said several attempts are made to resolve an inmate’s complaint before the grievance ends up in the hands of the grievance board. When an inmate first has a complaint, she said prison staff are encouraged to try to resolve the complaint informally. If the inmate is not satisfied, he has the right to file a written complaint with the unit. Couch said the officials who deal with that inmate on a daily basis are required to respond to the inmate’s complaint. If the inmate still disagrees with the response, he can appeal the decision to the superintendent. If the inmate disagrees with the superintendent’s decision, the grievance is then sent to the grievance board for resolution.

Couch said during fiscal year 1997-98, the board responded to 11,676 grievance appeals from inmates. So far this fiscal year, the board has received 6,000 grievance appeals as of Jan. 8. Couch said most of the grievance appeals are routine complaints that can be handled by grievance examiners. But others require more intensive investigation and may involve the writing or rewriting of policy.

One such incident occurred when inmates complained that they had to walk in the rain without rain gear to attend their educational classes during bad weather. No policy existed requiring prison officials to provide raincoats, so the inmates were left having to sit through class soaking wet. The secretary upheld the board’s order requiring prison officials to provide the inmates with raincoats.

Couch said when she first came to the grievance board, the relationship between the board and DOP was not as favorable, but she and her staff have worked hard to change this relationship.

"We have tried to dispel the old ways of doing business," she said. "We are not out to get the staff. We want to work with them in a cooperative manner rather than wield a big stick."

Couch said an enlightened board and key staff like Mewborn have enhanced the board’s effectiveness. Along with understanding the way things work in a prison and the close relationship he has with many prison officials, Mewborn has done a lot to assist in improving the board’s working environment by being an advocate for healthy living.

A nutrition and exercise enthusiast, Mewborn said when he’s not at work, he’s at the gym where he works out at least four times a week. In addition to exercise, he also pays careful attention to what he eats. He avoids junk food, drinks a gallon of water a day and limits his fat intake.

Mewborn believes his passion for leading a healthy lifestyle is reflected in his job performance. He said exercise helps him keep his stress level down which is important in a job where all you do is deal with problems.

"This position is problem-oriented. When we get a call, it’s not someone calling to say, ‘Hey, how are you guys doing?’ It’s a complaint."

Along with relieving stress, Mewborn believes exercise and good nutrition can also lead to improved employee productivity by making employees more alert, improving attitudes and reducing the number of sick days taken each year. Mewborn’s healthy lifestyle has even inspired some of his co-workers to change their unhealthy habits.

"He is an inspiration to all of us,"

NC DOC Homepage
E-mail NC DOC