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Closing Arguments in Idaho Prison Scandal Hearing: 'This Is Too Important to Mess Up'

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Following two full days of testimony at the U.S. Courthouse in Boise—where witnesses included health care providers, wardens, investigators, officials with the Idaho Department of Correction and prisoners—a U.S. District Court judge now has the task of deciding whether the state of Idaho is guilty of a systemic cover-up.

Boise Weekly readers first heard about the allegations earlier this month, when we reported that prison officials were being accused of altering and/or destroying medical records in an effort to "taint" a federally mandated probe of the prison's mental health unit. The latest allegations stem from the decades-old Balla vs. Idaho case, which resulted in a court-ordered "special master" forensic audit of the prison, with particular attention to care at Idaho's sprawling medical campus south of Boise. 

One by one, clinicians and licensed health care providers stood before the court July 22-23 and told stories of how records had been altered, prisoners had been moved around in what some called "musical cells" and so-called "dry cells" were used with great regularity.

The dry cells, labeled "barbaric" by a forensic investigator, have no running water or bedding and only a hole in the middle of the floor for use as a toilet. Prisoners who threatened suicide were often sent to the dry cells, but it was also alleged that they had been used as punishment for particular inmates in the mental health ward. Additionally, it was learned that the dry cells were emptied at the time of two separate visits from the special master auditor.

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"The Idaho Department of Correction has denied they've done anything wrong since 1981 [when Balla vs. Idaho originated]. That denial has continued for years and IDOC's denial has continued for the past two days in this courtroom. This has gone on far too long," said Stoel Rives LLP attorney Elijah Watkins, representing the inmates in the case. "This court needs to hold IDOC's feet to the fire. This is too important to mess up."

Deputy Idaho Attorney General Colleen Zahn, representing IDOC, compared the case against the department to a game of "whack-a-mole," saying the plaintiffs' attorneys had come up with multiple allegations, only to "be whacked down again." Zahn characterized the clinicians who testified during the hearing as "people who couldn't get along with their supervisor" and they "look through a very slanted, biased lens."

Zahn also referred to media coverage of the scandal, which has appeared almost exclusively in BW.

"This has been a very difficult case to defend. It ended up in the newspapers. We don't know why or how that happened, but it made it difficult for us," said Zahn, adding, "These accusations are broad and overreaching. [IDOC] is complying with Balla and we continue to comply. We may not be perfect. And we'll always have our differences; that's a certainty."

U.S. District Court Judge David Carter ordered an expedited transcription of the dramatic hearings and took voluminous notes of the proceedings. He also has scores of exhibits to comb through in preparation for his eagerly awaited verdict.