Miles was not named in the indictments but has been removed from her post. An attorney for Miles has said she was being used as a "token to appease the public" in the case and will contest her firing.

Rocah said the ACLU has had to step in on behalf of several inmates with severe medical conditions who went months or even years without the treatment they needed because prison officials dismissed their grievances, mostly on technical grounds.

One inmate with an amputation below the knee was repeatedly denied access to a more accessible facility, even though he fell often and filed grievances for years, Rocah said. Most of the grievances were dismissed on the grounds that he had known of the problem for more than 15 days, the time limit placed on filing claims, Rocah said. Years into the fight, a prison administrator dismissed one of the grievances, in which the inmate hadn't noted his amputation, with one line: "What disabilities?"

The inmate was finally transferred to Roxbury Correctional Institute, which is accessible for those with disabilities, after the ACLU stepped in, Rocah said.

Binetti said he could not comment on the case but added that the department complies with the Americans with Disabilities Act and that inmates with disabilities receive priority placement in newer, accessible facilities.

Elizabeth Alexander, the lead attorney litigating improvements to jail conditions under a federal consent decree that has been in effect since the 1970s, said she has heard from more inmates alleging officer misconduct than ever before and always takes her concerns directly to Maryland Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler's office. "We'd never refer anyone to [the jail's] grievance process," she said.

State corrections officials, for their part, say that mistakes have been made but the system works. They collect thousands of handwritten complaints from facility submission boxes every year, and each one is handled, Binetti said.

Still, there are problems, Binetti acknowledged, and the corrections department is addressing them.

Unlike prisoners' grievances, those filed by pretrial inmates at the Baltimore jail — while they are investigated in a similar way — cannot be appealed to a centralized grievance office, Binetti said. And unlike forms used in prisons, those at the jail have no carbon copy for inmates to keep as a record — a fact Gabriel criticizes in court documents.

Binetti said inmates are given a second chance to fill out a form if their first submission is rejected on technical grounds, but that no data exists "to demonstrate the number of incomplete or improperly completed grievances that are dismissed."

The department is bringing the jail grievance process in line with the system used in other state facilities, Binetti said, and should be finished in August. The changes will allow for better statistics on grievances at the jail, give inmates the right to appeal to the system's central grievance office and add carbon copies to jail grievance forms.

A tool in the courts

Even when savvy inmates manage to push their complaints beyond the administrative process and into the courts, the grievance process remains a hurdle, advocates say. Attorneys in Gansler's office, who represent the state in inmate complaint cases, regularly argue for dismissal on the basis that the internal grievance process was not exhausted first.

David Paulson, a Gansler spokesman, called that practice "fairly common."

Gabriel ran into that roadblock. As a result of the attack, Gabriel suffered permanent damage to his right eye and was prescribed medication for depression and anxiety, he wrote in meticulous penmanship in an April court filing from a state prison in Hagerstown, where he was serving a sentence for large-scale narcotics possession.

Medical records filed in his state case confirm that he suffered stab wounds and eye damage.

In responding to Gabriel's pending federal complaint and the earlier state claim, attorneys for the corrections department have acknowledged his injuries and agreed to pay his medical bills. But they have denied responsibility for the assault and have fought — successfully in the state case — to have the complaints dismissed, partly on the grounds that he did not exhaust the internal process.

Kelvin L. Harris, the corrections department's director of standards, compliance and litigation, filed an affidavit in the state case stating that Gabriel had filed six grievances in the past — about his housing unit and not receiving legal documents, among other issues — but none "about being the victim of several stabbings through the direction of gang affiliated correctional officers."

Gabriel said he did file such a grievance, but guards must have tampered with it. "Most officers read them before they place the grievances in the [submission] box and they don't like to participate in bringing down their own," he wrote in court records.

Binetti said inmates can personally place their forms in the submission boxes.