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Diana Canfield

The star witness in a federal court hearing talks about her personal IDOC hell


There are advocates, there are whistleblowers, and then there's Diana Canfield, the woman who blew the lid off of the Behavioral Health Unit of the Idaho State Correctional Institution. In both Ada County and U.S. Court, Canfield detailed what she said were illegal—even immoral—practices inside the BHU. The veteran caregiver and one-time clinician for the Idaho Department of Correction said harassment and bullying from her supervisors had "gone on way too long for me to stay there."

When she resigned, her former bosses threatened to have her social work license revoked. Canfield fought back. Hard.

Earlier this year, Canfield told an Ada County Court jury that medical notes she had placed in prisoners' files had been altered and, in some cases, destroyed. She also painted a particularly ugly picture of IDOC's frequent use of so-called "dry cells"—empty rooms with no beds and only a hole in the concrete floor for use as a toilet. The jury agreed with Canfield that IDOC's actions had been improper, awarding her $3,000 in back pay and $75,000 more for what her lawyer, Andrew Schoppe, later characterized as "the hell she went through."

Canfield became a star witness in a subsequent federal court hearing in which the state had to answer to those allegations and more, detailed in a series of Boise Weekly reports. Canfield now lives in Arizona, but returned to Boise for the hearing in late-July. Following her testimony, BW sat down with Canfield on the steps of the U.S. Courthouse to talk about her ordeal.

Can I assume that when you first started working at IDOC's Behavioral Health Unit, you had a fair amount of optimism and enthusiasm for your work?

Absolutely. I remember the day of my interview at the prison, hearing the gates clang behind me, and I thought about how much I would love my work there. The inmates are raw. If you gain their trust when they're at the lowest of the low, they can truly be helped. I remember a client who was behind bars for life for murdering someone when he was 17 years old. That's when I created a so-called lifers' group for men convicted for life to talk about things.

For the past few weeks we've been hearing more about the use of dry cells, and I think a lot of citizens are stunned at their use.

They should be stunned. Nothing's in that room: no bedding on the floor. Nothing. Just a hole in the floor. I wouldn't put an animal in there.

Someone thinks they're appropriate.

Do you honestly think that a dry cell would make anyone any better if he was suicidal? To strip them of all of their clothes and throw them onto a concrete floor with a hole in it? The best practice in mental health care is to put someone like that in the least restrictive environment possible.

I know that we're still waiting for the judge's verdict on this, but do you think there will be any significant fallout from these findings?

Honestly, no.

Yet you were quite successful in Ada County Court.

That was surreal. It blew me away. I was in tears. It restored my hope in humankind.

But the reason you and I are sitting on the steps of the federal courthouse is because your case triggered this hearing.

If it wasn't for my attorney, Andrew Schoppe, none of this would have happened. He's brilliant and he hasn't charged me a dime.

He told us that if he could afford it, he would take cases such as yours all the time.

Let's put it this way: He certainly changed my mind about lawyers.

When we first looked into your case there was one report last February of the original allegations, but no media had reported the outcome of your trial when you beat the state of Idaho.

It was quashed. The Statesman wouldn't touch the story.

On more than one occasion I have thought about your story as a movie.

Andrew Schoppe should play himself. Who should play me? Probably someone younger.

My sense is that IDOC tripped up when they tried to go after your license when you left.

Their biggest mistake was to fuck with me. Honestly, I was prepared to leave it all behind and start over. But they kept coming after me and I said, "Enough."

I'm presuming that many of the questions you were asked here in federal court were familiar.

It's interesting, when I first took the stand in Ada County Court, my lawyer, Andrew, never prepared or rehearsed me. He wouldn't tell me what questions he would ask. He just wanted me to tell the truth.

Can we talk about incarceration in America? Too many of our men and women are behind bars, yes?

Way too many.

But that's not changing anytime soon. Where is your hope for our system of corrections?

The system was built by good people, but unfortunately it now includes sadistic people, too—people who insist on having power over other people who are less fortunate. I know a lot of your readers don't like to hear that, but it's true.

Each time Boise Weekly writes about the prisons, I'm certain we lose a good many readers.

That makes no sense. We could all be there. Who doesn't know someone who has been locked up or struggled with substance abuse?

Have you thought about what you're going to do with all of this baggage from your time at IDOC? Are your going to put it on a shelf?

It never leaves me. It definitely changed me. I was fighting for my fellow clinicians, the inmates and the entire correction system. But for now, I'm prepared to stay as far away from Idaho as I can.