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Federal Judge Sanctions Idaho DOC for Misleading Special Master in Balla Case

On August 11, 2015, an Idaho federal court ordered sanctions against the State of Idaho and its prison system in a blistering ruling that found prison officials had intentionally misled a court-appointed special master regarding the quality of mental health services provided to prisoners. The sanctions were entered in a 35-year-old class-action suit over unconstitutional conditions in the Idaho Department of Corrections (IDOC) known as the Balla litigation, which PLN has reported on previously.

U.S. District Court Judge David O. Carter said “attempts to mislead the Court strike at the heart of the judicial process and cannot be ignored even if the parties have made progress since [the initiation of the lawsuit]. Thus, the Court finds it appropriate to issue sanctions.” The ruling noted that Idaho State Correctional Institution (ISCI) officials had a “pattern of allowing employees to manipulate inmate medical files before, during and after the special master’s visit for inappropriate purposes,” and that practice clearly “crosse[d] the line.”

Previously, the special master appointed by the court, Dr. Marc Stern, had issued a report on February 2, 2012 that found much of the medical care provided at ISCI was unconstitutional. Specifically, he wrote there were “serious problems with the delivery of medical and mental health care,” which “resulted or risked resulting in serious harm to inmates” and were “frequent, pervasive, [and] long-standing.” Idaho officials tried to suppress the report by having it sealed, unsuccessfully.

In a motion for sanctions, the Balla plaintiffs alleged that ISCI officials had altered or destroyed prisoners’ medical records, masked the treatment of mentally ill prisoners by moving them in and out of the mental health unit, and engaged in the excessive use of “dry cells” – except on days the special master audited the mental health unit. The dry cells were called “barbaric” by a court-appointed psychiatrist in a prior report.

Other allegations of improper conduct by prison staff included altering records to show less frequent use of dry cells and better suicide watches, and ordering mental health staff to never diagnose a prisoner with gender identity disorder (GID) or to refer to male transgender prisoners with female pronouns in their medical records. Medical records were allegedly altered to remove prior references to GID and the use of female pronouns.

The IDOC’s attempts to “paper over and mislead the special master about the inadequacies of its mental health care system” might not have come to light but for whistle-blower and former ISCI clinician Diana Canfield, who courageously testified that her then-supervisor, Shell Wamble-Fisher, had altered and even scrubbed notes that Canfield entered into prisoners’ medical records. Wamble-Fisher, who had been promoted from ISCI’s clinical supervisor to assistant warden, was allowed to retire.

“Wamble-Fisher is a huge part of the problem we’re talking about, but it’s important to note that nobody at IDOC stopped her,” said attorney Andrew Schoppe, who represents Canfield. “I think it’s just a matter of time for us to see who on the inside of the Department of Corrections will turn state’s evidence first and start telling everything.”

The sanctions ordered by the district court restart a two-year monitoring period during which the special master will continue to oversee the IDOC’s compliance with court orders; a settlement that included the initial monitoring period was reached in 2013. [See: PLN, Feb. 2013, p.40]. The court also ordered the IDOC to pass an audit conducted by the National Commission on Correctional Health Care before it will be allowed to request dismissal of the lawsuit after the monitoring period ends. Finally, the district court shifted the burden of proving a lack of ongoing constitutional violations from the prisoner plaintiffs to the defendants.

The plaintiffs are represented by Boise attorneys Bradley J. Dixon, George C. Patterson, Jason Emerson Prince, William C. Pooser and Elijah M. Watkins. See: Balla v. Idaho State Board of Corrections, U.S.D.C. (D. Idaho), Case No. 1:81-cv-01165-BLW; 2015 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 109759.

The district court subsequently granted attorneys’ fees and costs to the plaintiffs in the amount of $338,427.44 on February 1, 2016, which the defendants have appealed. The class-action suit remains pending.

Additional sources:, Associated Press

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Related legal case

Balla v. Idaho State Board of Corrections