Federal judge to unseal report on Idaho prisons

From the Associated Press

By REBECCA BOONE, Associated Press

BOISE, Idaho (AP) — A federal judge on Thursday set a deadline for unsealing an expert’s report on medical care for inmates at an Idaho correctional facility, saying opposing lawyers for the state and prisoners have one week to agree on a statement to accompany the findings.

U.S. District Judge B. Lynn Winmill appointed the expert to create the report as part of his effort to bring a decades-old lawsuit between the state and inmates at the Idaho State Correctional Institution to a close. Correctional health care expert Dr. Marc Stern filed the report under seal last month.

Attorneys for the state argued that the report should remain sealed until both sides have a chance to contest it, because otherwise, they said, the public could wrongly assume Stern’s findings amounted to a court order.

But during a hearing Thursday, Winmill said the public’s right to know outweighed the state’s concern. He gave both sides one week to agree on wording for a stamp to put on each page of the report stating that it isn’t the court’s official ruling, and said after that, it would be unsealed.

Though still under seal, it’s clear the report isn’t flattering to the state. Deputy Idaho Attorney Generals Mark Kubinski and Colleen Zahn told the court that it contained inflammatory statements that if released, would be likely to cause an “unjustified public scandal.”

Zahn told Winmill that the state needed a chance to “provide information that shows the conclusions in that report are very inaccurate.”

But Jason Prince, an attorney with law firm Stoel Rives, which is representing the inmates, noted that Stern was ordered by the court to research and review the medical care at the prison and file his report under penalty of perjury. Just because the information Stern found might embarrass the state was no reason to seal it, Prince argued.

The lawsuit began in the early 1980s when so many inmates from the Idaho State Correctional Institution began filing lawsuits that the cases threatened to clog Idaho’s federal dockets. The judge presiding over the lawsuits at that time noted similarities between them and combined them all into one class-action lawsuit, which became known as the “Balla case” after lead plaintiff Walter Balla.

Several rulings against the state were handed down over the next three decades, with various federal judges ordering Idaho leaders to stop prison overcrowding, reduce violence, provide prisoners with warm clothes and improve access to medical and mental health care.

But the case kept bouncing back to the federal courts as inmates maintained problems at the prison continued. Most recently, the complaints have focused on medical and mental health care — a premise that seemed to be at least partly supported by the state’s own decision in recent years to fine its medical care provider more than $382,500 for failing to meet some health care requirements set by the state.

The state contends that the Idaho State Correctional Institution has changed dramatically in both its physical facilities and operations over the past several years and that rulings in the long-running lawsuit are increasingly difficult to apply to the prison as it stands today.

Idaho officials contend that if there are still problems at ISCI, the inmates should file new lawsuits that would accurately reflect the present circumstances.
Winmill appointed Stern last year to review health care at the prison so that he can review the findings in deciding whether to end the Balla case or continue court oversight.

From the Associated Press

Not an IDOG member yet?