In a much-anticipated federal court ruling concerning allegations of a systemic cover-up by the Idaho Department of Correction, nothing short of the department's integrity is at stake. Ultimately, the judge needs to determine whether the words of Fyodor Dostoevsky are true—that a society is to be judged by how it treats its prisoners or, at least, its weakest members.
The charges against IDOC include the alteration and/or destruction of medical records; the movement of inmates out of the prison's mental health unit and into the general population, part of a game called "musical jail cells" meant to sidestep a yearslong investigation into health care at the Idaho State Correctional Institution; and the inappropriate use of so-called "dry cells" labeled "barbaric" by a court-appointed investigator.
"We don't know how this case has ended up in the newspaper," said Deputy Attorney General Colleen Zahn in her closing argument following two marathon court sessions July 22-23. "But it has made defending this case very difficult for us."
According to a number of witnesses, the true difficulty was fear of retaliation for going public with frustration—and even anger—at a system that they said included prisoner treatment plans being altered by a supervisor who hadn't even seen the inmates and, in some cases, entire portions of medical records and logs altered or destroyed.
Following initial reports on the prison scandal, a steady stream of clinicians, inmates and former IDOC officials continued to come forward to corroborate the claims, including one former IDOC business analyst who told BW that the "squelching of information remains alive and well," and that "people with firsthand knowledge are moving beyond fear to the truth."
In spite of veteran clinicians recounting the same story as witnesses in the court hearing, IDOC officials insisted that the claims weren't true. The Idaho attorney general's office, acting as defense counsel for IDOC, said the allegations were coming from "unhappy former employees" who saw things "through a different lens."
U.S. District Court Judge David Carter is the definition of a no-nonsense jurist. Minutes before gaveling into session July 22, Carter stood in front of courtroom No. 1 at the U.S. Courthouse in Boise, hands on his hips, and set the pace for the next 48 hours.
"When I call for a piece of evidence, I want it up here in a nanosecond," said Carter, a decorated U.S. Marine Corps veteran of the Vietnam War.
While serving as a supervising judge in California's Orange County Superior Court, Carter was dubbed "King David" for his direct style. Though California is his home base, Carter also tries cases in the U.S. District Court of Idaho, where he is teamed with U.S. District Court Chief Justice B. Lynn Winmill in the decades-long Balla vs. Idaho case, alleging poor medical service and overcrowding in Idaho prisons. That still-open case triggered a 2011 court order of a so-called "special master" to conduct forensic audits of Idaho prisons, with particular focus on mental health care.
The plaintiffs in the ongoing class-action suit returned to the U.S. Courthouse in Boise after new allegations began to surface accusing IDOC of "tainting" the special master probe. Whether or not attorney Elijah Watkins, representing the plaintiffs, was aware of Carter's nickname, he argued that IDOC's alleged attempt to manipulate the special master investigation was, "An attack on the king's man; and that is an attack on the king."
Perhaps no name was repeated more often through the course of the two-day federal court hearing than Shell Wamble-Fisher, a former IDOC clinical supervisor and deputy warden who is slated to retire from IDOC, effective Aug. 1. Wamble-Fisher conceded on the witness stand that the pending court proceedings had contributed to stress that led to her early retirement.
When Wamble-Fisher walked into the courtroom her small stature seemed at odds with the monumental accusations lodged against her, including a propensity to override clinicians' treatment plans, alteration of medical records and logs, harassment and intimidation, and dishonesty in the face of the special master investigation. Five of the eight clinicians working under her lodged a detailed complaint with the warden of the Idaho State Correctional Institution, providing what the warden later described as documented incidences of inappropriate behavior that clinicians said mounted to a "crisis point" at the prison.
"But please take note of which particular witness is missing from the defense's argument: The one clinician who can refute what the other clinicians said about Ms. Wamble-Fisher. But the fact is, that witness doesn't exist" said attorney Watkins, who also pointed to Wamble-Fisher's previous employment history where workers at Ada County Family Court Services similarly accused her of altering employees' records, triggering an Idaho Supreme Court investigation. When asked about those allegations on the witness stand, Wamble-Fisher insisted that she wasn't even aware of the separate investigation.
Watkins also pressed Wamble-Fisher about conflicting statements in a deposition and affidavit, given less than 24 hours apart, regarding the use of dry cells—so named because they lack furniture and running water, with only a hole in the floor for use as a toilet. When confronted about why the special master was told an inmate had been left in a dry cell for 10 days while records revealed that the inmate was in the cell for 19 days, Wamble-Fisher said she couldn't recall why there was a discrepancy. She also testified that she couldn't remember if she had ordered certain inmates moved out of the behavioral health unit prior to the special master's visits. When she was asked if she had altered a so-called "primary log" of inmate names, medical status and medications, Wamble-Fisher insisted that she had only "condensed" some of the information.
Deputy Attorney General Zahn said Wamble-Fisher and the clinicians simply "couldn't get along and they just don't like each other." Zahn argued that the clinicians were "people who view their circumstances differently" and were only "a group who had personal differences."
When it came time to answer the plaintiff's question of why Zahn and her defense team couldn't produce a single clinician to come to Wamble-Fisher's defense, Zahn said "It was a matter of time. We didn't have time." Judge Carter pushed back against that, reminding Zahn that both sides had ample opportunity to call an equal number of witnesses and that he had even extended the hours on the first day of testimony, stretching the session well into the night.
The key witnesses for the plaintiffs' case against IDOC were Diana Canfield and Jessie Bogley, both former mental health clinicians at the prison's behavioral health unit. Canfield had worked at the BHU from September 2010 until July 2012 and Bogley worked there from August 2010 until January 2013. Canfield returned to Boise for the court hearing from her new home in Gilbert, Ariz., and Bogley testified via video from her new home in Grand Junction, Colo.
"Am I nervous? Yes. Because of past retaliation against me," said Canfield.
For the better part of two hours on the witness stand, Canfield told the court that her then-supervisor, Wamble-Fisher, had openly hatched a plan to move any troubled inmates out of the dry cells during the special master investigation; to shift other inmates who "complained a lot" out of the BHU and into the prison's general population just prior to the investigative visit; and continued to alter or scrub some of Canfield's own notes in prisoners' medical files or logs. In one instance, Canfield testified that Wamble-Fisher had gone as far as to change some medical notes on a suicide risk assessment, putting Canfield's name on the notes instead of her own.
In early July 2012, Canfield said she noticed a significant amount of her own medical notes had mysteriously disappeared from inmate files.
"That's when I resigned. I knew I was being set up," Canfield told the court. "When medical documents are destroyed there's no way to legitimately know that care is being given."
Three years later, this past March, Canfield emerged victorious in a separate courtroom at the Ada County Courthouse, where a jury ruled that IDOC had wronged Canfield and ordered the department to pay her a judgment of $78,000.
"It blew me away. I was in tears. It restored my faith in humankind," Canfield later told BW. "I was fighting for the inmates and my fellow clinicians. Actually, I was fighting for the integrity of the entire system."
Bogley's testimony at the U.S. Courthouse was just as sobering, confirming that dry cells had been used "almost every day" prior to the special master's investigative visits but were emptied at the times when he toured the facility. Bogley also told the court that Wamble-Fisher had only wanted the special master to see "offenders that were pleased with their mental health care" and that she was personally aware of at least four inmates transferred out of the BHU prior to the visits.
"The special master was not getting an accurate presentation," said Bogley.
Bogley also testified that Wamble-Fisher once asked her to write a suicide risk assessment for a particular inmate without even seeing the individual, something Bogley said she refused to do.
"Things weren't making sense. I found notes had gone missing from inmate files. And the primary log was being altered," said Bogley. "I can't imagine why the [files] would be changed or missing, other than someone actively wanting to take them out."
Cindy Stephenson, a 25-year veteran investigator with 15 years at the Idaho Bureau of Occupational Licensing and 10 more at the Idaho Industrial Commission, first heard Diana Canfield's name in late 2012, shortly after her resignation from IDOC. Ironically, the department wanted Stephenson to investigate Canfield on charges of altering medical records. Following a five-month probe, Stephenson found the exact opposite to be true: Records "had been altered or destroyed," Stephenson said, but it wasn't Canfield's doing. Stephenson said she had her suspicions, but it wasn't her job to lodge an allegation.
"I didn't have the authority to open a case on Ms. Wamble-Fisher. My job was to investigate Ms. Canfield," said Stephenson, who added that her probe included full access to all IDOC files and interviews with 17 department officials and employees.
Waiting for a Ruling
Following testimony from nearly 20 witnesses and boxes of documents were entered into evidence, Carter, armed with his own voluminous notes, finally allowed the defense and plaintiffs' counsels to offer closing arguments, which, more often than not, were intense.
"Your honor, we know documents were fabricated," said Watkins. "We know that dry cells were routinely used, sometimes up to 30 days at a time; yet they were emptied prior to the special master's arrival. We know select inmates were moved in and moved out of the unit. We know that investigator Stephenson had even gone to the prison warden to say, 'Something's going on here.' Yet they continued to double-down and triple-down on Ms. Wamble-Fisher. A wrong has been done."
Zahn was just as impassioned in her closing arguments, saying that the plaintiffs' case had been a "game of whack-a-mole" and "a moving target from the beginning."
"It wasn't possible for [the special master] to talk to every inmate there during his visit," said Zahn. "There is no proof of any fraud or cause for any sanctions here. Their case is broad and overreaching. The state of Idaho is complying with [Balla vs. Idaho] and we continue to comply. We may not be perfect' and we'll probably always have our differences; that's a certainty."
It will be Judge "King David" Carter who will be the ultimate arbiter of just how big, and more importantly how critical, those differences truly have been—and whether Idaho can continue to do business as usual at its prison complex or face contempt or sanctions.