Courtroom No. 1 of the U.S. Courthouse in Boise was the scene of several hours of shocking and often emotional testimony July 22, as a steady stream of clinicians, prison officials, prisoners and a 25-year veteran of state investigations were sworn in to testify at a hearing investigating allegations of a systemic cover-up at the Idaho Department of Correction.
"IDOC was willfully blind and willfully deaf to the court's orders. They were warned and warned and warned again," attorney Elijah Watkins told U.S. District Judge David Carter. "They tampered with evidence and silenced those who wanted to speak."
Watkins and his colleagues from Boise-based Stoel Rives LLP, representing plaintiffs in the decades-old Balla vs. Idaho case, were back in federal court to ask Carter to find the state of Idaho to be in contempt of court—or even slap state officials with sanctions for what Watkins said was a "fabrication" and "fraud upon the court" for impeding a so-called "special master" ordered by the court to investigate prison operations.
Boise Weekly first reported details of the allegations earlier this month, including charges that prison officials altered and/or destroyed medical records in an effort to "taint" a federally mandated probe of the prison's mental health unit.
IDOC officials, represented by the Idaho attorney general's office, pushed back Wednesday, insisting, as Assistant Attorney General Colleen Zahn said, "There is no contempt or fraud or attempt to conceal evidence."
The star witness of Wednesday's session was former IDOC clinician Diana Canfield, who admitted that she was a "bit nervous."
"Why?" she said. "Because of past retaliation."
Canfield was the first whistleblower in the most recent allegations, accusing her supervisor of deleting or altering prisoners' records.
Canfield and fellow clinician Jessie Bogley also detailed IDOC's use of so-called "dry cells"—lock-ups with no running water, bed or furniture and only a hole in the middle of the floor for use as a toilet. Both clinicians said the dry cells had been used routinely and often for punishment, with some prisoners staying in the cells for as long as a week or month. The clinicians also said that the cells were emptied out just prior to a forensic audit from the court-ordered special master, sent to investigate conditions in the behavioral health unit.
They also detailed how certain inmates were transferred out of the unit and into the general prison population so that the special master would not have access to what were considered "vocal" inmates.
A number of inmates were brought, one by one, into the courtroom to testify about their experiences in the behavioral health unit, being sent to the dry cells and in a particularly emotional moment from one inmate, talking about how he desperately wanted to be tested for Gender Identity Disorder but was repeatedly discouraged by IDOC officials who said he was simply a feminine gay man.
The inmate said, at one point, he told IDOC officials he would cut off his testicles and penis in order to be understood. Only recently, the inmate testified, did a six-month investigation into his concerns begin.
Another full day of testimony is scheduled for Thursday, July 23.