Idaho's New Prison Scandal

Altered medical records, scrubbed diagnoses and 'musical cells' trigger new federal court hearing


Idaho is poised to see yet another prison scandal. In the wake of a 2013 investigation, which revealed the Corrections Corporation of America had falsified documents to cover up thousands of hours of understaffing at the Idaho Correctional Center, CCA agreed to pay a $1 million settlement and slink away from Idaho's failed private prison experiment.

Now, it's the Idaho Department of Correction that is under fire and, later this month, the department will be brought to federal court to face allegations that it "continued to destroy, falsify and otherwise alter medical records" of inmates inside the state of Idaho's prison complex. Furthermore, officials are being accused of a systematic "cover-up," including manipulation of court-ordered oversight of mental health care at the prison.

One of those officials is already on her way out the door. Boise Weekly has learned that Shell Wamble-Fisher, a former deputy warden at the Idaho State Correctional Institution and current IDOC clinical supervisor, has informed the state that she would be retiring from her post on Saturday, Aug. 1 as part of a "personal action request." More than a few inside sources told BW that Wamble-Fisher was resigning and hadn't been seen at the prison for weeks. IDOC confirmed that Wamble-Fisher was leaving but would not comment further.

Meanwhile inside the prison, two inmates interviewed by BW confirmed that six prisoners are scheduled to be escorted to the U.S. Courthouse in Boise on Wednesday, July 22 to testify in a hearing alleging the destruction or alteration of prisoner medical records.

"It's really astonishing," Boise-based attorney Andrew Schoppe told BW.

Astonishing? Yes. Widely known? Hardly. Yes, there had been media reports, primarily from the Associated Press in February, when Schoppe's client Diana Canfield, a former IDOC employee and mental health care provider at the prison, alleged that her superiors—particularly Wamble-Fisher—had altered or even scrubbed some of the medical notes that Canfield had written in prisoners' health records.

Ultimately, Canfield said she had been forced to resign and was accused of altering the records. Canfield insisted that the exact opposite was true—that her superiors were responsible for the destruction of records. On March 6, an Ada County Court jury agreed with Canfield in her suit against IDOC, awarding her $78,000.

"That's $3,000 in lost wages and $75,000 for the hell she went through," said Schoppe. "But I can tell you that we're not over just yet. The state of Idaho has already filed a motion for a reduced judgment. The state... they tend to fight things to the death."

Canfield will face the state again on July 22, this time in federal court, when she returns to Idaho (she has since moved out of state) to repeat her story to U.S. District Court Judge David Carter. That hearing will be the latest chapter in the decades-long Balla vs. Idaho lawsuit.

Balla is Walter Balla, a former Idaho prisoner who first alleged overcrowding and poor access to medical care in 1981, triggering a federal lawsuit that resulted in a 2011 federal court order to appoint a so-called "special master" to investigate the delivery of medical and mental health care at the Idaho State Correctional Institution. That "special master" is Dr. Marc Stern, a teacher, researcher and former Health Service director for the Washington State Department of Corrections.

"But recently, in February 2015, plaintiffs learned of allegations that Dr. Stern's report was intentionally tainted and undermined by the actions and conduct of IDOC," reads a June 22 court filing from attorneys from the Boise-based law firm Stoel Rives, representing the plaintiffs in their legal battle against the state of Idaho. "Plaintiffs have since investigated and confirmed that the allegations are true. While Dr. Stern believed he was afforded unfettered access to people, places and documents during his visits to ISCI, he was not. IDOC misrepresented the true conditions at ISCI in an attempt to mislead Dr. Stern."

Attorneys allege that IDOC played "musical cells" in the prison's Behavioral Health Unit and limited certain inmates from speaking with Dr. Stern during his investigative visits to the prison.

During a June 1 deposition, Stern told attorneys that he had been under the impression that he had free run of the entire facility and access to all inmates during his visits. But an independent investigation indicates that wasn't true. So-called "dry cells," named as such because they don't have any running water, had been routinely used for monthlong stretches but were temporarily shut down during Stern's visits. Additionally, Brian Fariss, a former psychiatric treatment coordinator for IDOC, testified in a June 2 deposition that "sick inmates, dealing with pervasive mental health issues" were moved out of the Behavioral Health Unit and out to the prison yard prior to Stern's investigative visit. According to Fariss, "it put inmates who needed mental health services at risk by placing them into the [prison yard]."

Still another explosive revelation came from Armida Molina-Medina, a designated examiner with the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare, who in a June 5 deposition, said that then-deputy warden Wamble-Fisher had ordered him and fellow clinicians not to document any inmates with Gender Identity Disorder.

According to Molina-Medina, Wamble-Fisher also said that she had gone as far as altering previous inmate medical records, removing any references to GID.

When attorneys asked Molina-Medina about what explanation was given to him, he testified that Wamble-Fisher said, "Because IDOC would then be forced to provide treatment to those inmates for Gender Identity Disorder-related issues."

One current prison inmate has told BW that he had been attempting to be tested for possible GID diagnosis but has been repeatedly denied.

"I've been trying to get diagnosed for Gender Identity Disorder for years," said the inmate, whom BW has chosen not to identify. "But I've been told the Idaho Department of Correction simply doesn't want me to be considered GID."

Another inmate told BW that guards had recently been ordered to remove bras, panties and makeup from certain transgender prisoners at ISCI.

"An attorney came down to the prison to talk to six of us," the inmate said. "So we're getting ready to speak before the court on July 22. Honestly, I'm worried that if I testify, they may revoke my chance of parole. I'm coming up before the parole board in six months. But we have to tell the truth."