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In Stunning Reversal, Idaho Prison Officials Ban Use of 'Barbaric' Dry Cells


  • Adam Rosenlund

News first broke in July that a long simmering scandal at the Idaho State Correctional Institution would result in a federal court hearing, and, in August, the case culminated in a blistering slap-down from a federal judge

Less than a month later, on Monday night, the Idaho Department of Correction announced it would ban the future use of so-called "dry cells," labeled "barbaric" by a court-ordered investigator.

The dry cells—so named because they have no running water or bed and only a hole in the floor for use as a toilet—were routinely employed by IDOC at the Behavioral Health Unit of the Idaho State Correctional Institution. 

Prisoners who threatened suicide were often sent to the dry cells, but it was also alleged they had been used as punishment for some inmates in the mental health ward. Additionally, it was learned during the federal hearing that the dry cells were emptied at the time of two separate visits from a so-called "special master" auditor sent to the prison to ensure stipulations from a previous court ruling were being met.

 "I wouldn't put an animal in there," former IDOC clinician and key witness Diana Canfield told Boise Weekly following a July federal court hearing. "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."

Ultimately, U.S. District Court Judge David Carter ruled IDOC officials were in the wrong, writing, "Attempts to mislead the Court strike at the heart of the judicial process."

In its announcement Sept. 1, IDOC wrote, "As part of an effort to reform the Idaho Department of Correction's restrictive housing policies, the department has discontinued its use of dry cells."

“To some degree there will always be a need to temporarily isolate some inmates so they don’t hurt themselves or others, but we must not go overboard,” wrote IDOC Director Kevin Kempf, overturning the longstanding policy of using dry cells. “We need to make sure we’re isolating the right inmate for the right period of time and under the right conditions.”

Kempf added, "Research is showing us that in many cases segregation doesn't work and is causing more harm than good."