The wheels are quickly turning in a case against the state of Idaho, which alleges prison officials altered and/or destroyed medical records in an effort to "taint" a federally mandated probe of the prison's mental health unit.
"I hope [U.S. Chief District] Judge Lynn Winmill tears the roof off the place and sends a team of forensic auditors into the prison," said Boise-based attorney Andrew Schoppe, representing a former clinician-turned-whistleblower. "I think it's just a matter of time for us to see who on the inside of the Department of Correction will turn state's evidence first and starts telling everything."
Drawing on court documents, including depositions from clinicians and IDOC officials, Boise Weekly reported July 8 on how six inmates are preparing to testify in federal court that their medical records—some requesting they be diagnosed with gender identity disorder—were tampered with in order to save the state having to provide treatment. The allegations don't end there.
"Your report was shocking. I'm presuming that the court and the special master are furious," said Amy Whelan, senior attorney for the National Center for Lesbian Rights, a public interest law firm that advocates for equitable public policies affecting LGBT communities. "The allegations are so egregious, it's clear that Idaho needs to nip this in the bud," she said. "Otherwise, I wouldn't be terribly surprised if the U.S. Justice Department wants to investigate this."
The case also caught the attention of at least one Idaho lawmaker.
"I had a range of emotions, from shock to anger, when I read your report," said Idaho House Rep. Melissa Wintrow, a member of the House Judiciary, Rules and Administration Committee. "I plan to speak with the Idaho attorney general's office. I've got a lot of questions."
The most telling reaction to BW's investigation came from someone who, up until a few months ago, was responsible for the integrity of information recorded and disseminated at IDOC. His comments echoed those of other inside sources who, on more than one occasion, told BW of a "cancer" inside IDOC.
"This is no surprise," Michael Chacon, IDOC business analyst from May 2012 to April 2015, wrote in a prepared statement. "Top IDOC leadership has been informed of this behavior many times, and their squelching of information remains alive and well. It is sad that exceptionally dedicated IDOC staff are afraid to speak out," he wrote. "But the verbal cracks are spreading, far afield of the original Balla issues. The [July 22] hearing looms; and people with firsthand knowledge are moving beyond fear to the truth."
"Balla" is Walter Balla, and fear and truth had everything to do with his decades-long class action lawsuit against IDOC, dating back to the 1980s.
The resulting lawsuit, Balla vs. Idaho, triggered U.S. Chief District Judge B. Lynn Winmill and U.S. Judge David Carter to order a so-called "special master" to have unfettered access to the prison and its records during on-site investigations. Seattle-based Dr. Marc Stern was assigned by the court to be that special master.
According to allegations in the upcoming hearing, Stern's investigations have been repeatedly compromised by IDOC officials. Brian Fariss, a six-year veteran of IDOC who served as the psychiatric treatment coordinator and correctional manager at the Idaho State Correctional Institution, said in a sworn deposition that IDOC had deliberately moved some inmates out of the mental health unit and into the prison yard, thus giving them no access to Stern and "putting inmates who needed mental health services at risk." Additionally, a number of IDOC clinicians testified in depositions that "dry cells" routinely used to punish prisoners—so named because they have no running water and a hole in the floor for use as a toilet—were temporarily shut down during Stern's visits.
Stern later told attorneys he was under the impression that he had free access to inmates and records during his investigations.
"The special master is the ambassador of the judge. So, you treat him like the judge. You don't lie to the special master," said Schoppe. "An attack on the king's man is an attack on the king."
Schoppe represents former IDOC clinician Diana Canfield, who has testified that her then-supervisor, Shell Wamble-Fisher, who rose through IDOC's ranks to become a deputy warden, altered or even scrubbed medical notes Canfield had entered into prisoners' health records. Wamble-Fisher will retire from her post, effective Aug. 1, as part of a "personal action request."
"Wamble-Fisher is a huge part of the problem we're talking about, but it's important to note that nobody at IDOC stopped her," said Schoppe.
Schoppe and Canfield emerged victorious in an earlier Ada County court case where, on March 6, a jury agreed the whistleblower had strong evidence against Wamble-Fisher, ultimately awarding Canfield $78,000—$3,000 in back wages and $75,000 "for the hell that Canfield has gone through," Schoppe said. In preparation for the federal hearing on July 22, Schoppe pointed BW to several other high-profile officials.
"Keep in mind that Dr. Richard Craig [IDOC chief of psychology for nearly eight years] was Wamble-Fisher's boss. He was certainly aware of the allegations," Schoppe said. "Other names you should know are Garrett Coburn [currently an IDOC deputy warden] and former warden Johanna Smith [a 22-year IDOC veteran]. When a number of clinicians went straight to Warden Smith, she supposedly said, 'This may finally help me change things.'"
But Smith recently retired from IDOC.
The man at the top of IDOC is Kevin Kempf, whom Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter appointed to the director's post in December 2014. Kempf's 19-year career with IDOC includes two years as deputy IDOC director and six years as a department administrator. No one has officially named Kempf in the allegations, but Schoppe said it's important to note that top IDOC officials have regular, ongoing meetings regarding the Balla case.
Perhaps the most egregious allegations concern what current and former clinicians said were marching orders from Wamble-Fisher never to enter the term "gender identity disorder" in any prisoner medical records. One former clinician testified that Wamble-Fisher had gone as far as removing previous references to GID from some medical records.
When attorneys asked the clinician about what explanation was given by Wamble-Fisher, the clinician said he was told, "IDOC would then be forced to provide treatment to those inmates."
If that is true, it flies in the face of IDOC directive No. 401.06.03.501, which in the department's standard operating procedure manual, outlines the diagnostic requirements and treatment available "to all IDOC offenders who request or are evaluated for and/or diagnosed with GID."
That was news to a number of inmates currently at the Idaho prison complex. They said a number of inmates had been denied GID services and/or testing. On July 22, six of those inmates will be transported from the prison to the U.S. courthouse in Boise to testify on the matter.
"Thank you for investigating our situation," one inmate said in a phone conversation from the prison. "You realize the inhuman treatment of individuals who are different, and how Idaho treats us."
"We don't fight for special treatment," another wrote in a letter. "We just ask for equality. We're all human."
"I think it's going to hit the fan," said another inmate. "In fact, we're a little afraid."
From the San Francisco offices of NCLR, attorney Amy Whelan said, "Every major medical and mental health expert has spoken about [GID] and has confirmed that it's a diagnosable condition that needs to be treated. Prisons that continue to ignore that medical reality are putting themselves at extreme risk of liability."
Whelan added the alleged IDOC "cover-up" could lead to strong sanctions, or worse.
"An intentional cover-up of prison conditions from the special master is shocking," she said. "You need to remember that the appointment of a special master is only done at prisons that are truly failing to provide constitutionally adequate medical care. And if the prison disregarded that authority, the Idaho officials are effectively saying, 'We don't care what the court says. We don't respect their authority."