Stapilus: Details under the surface
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Stapilus: Details under the surface

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In his memoir, former Governor Phil Batt recalled when, in 1996, he had to decide whether to allow or block execution of a convicted killer.

The killing was horrendous, and the convict, Donald Paradis, was connected to it – he admitted to helping with transport of the body – but he maintained consistently that he was not the killer.

Batt was a death penalty supporter. He was no fan of Paradis or his fellow “group of unsavory characters,” nor even of his attorney (Bill Mauk, who was a Democratic Party leader and candidate in Idaho around that time). On the question of whether to sustain a Pardons and Parole Board decision to stop an already-ordered execution, Batt admitted, “I went into my deliberations with a skeptical attitude.”

But also a careful, investigative and thoughtful one. He cleared his calendar for day after day as he reviewed the record, weighed the physical evidence, and even talked with the mother of the victim. He struggled with it. His final conclusion: There was enough doubt as to Paradis’ guilt that he should not be executed.

That was not a universally praised decision—the governor just kept a killer from getting what he deserved, right? – but Batt’s instinct was sound. Five years later, after new evidence came to light, Paradis’ conviction was vacated. (He was convicted instead of being an accessory after the fact.) It took a lot of careful sifting of details to come up with the right answer.

The Batt-Paradis incident comes to mind in the new case of Adree Edmo, also an Idaho state prisoner but one whose decision point is different: He, a state prisoner born male who identifies as a woman, is asking the state of Idaho to pay for sex-reassignment surgery.

Edmo has been behind bars after conviction of child sexual abuse. In a statement, Governor Brad Little notes that, “Edmo would have been eligible for parole by now but has chosen not to follow the prison’s rules of conduct. There are numerous instances of Edmo engaging in violence and other prohibited conduct while incarcerated, eliminating the opportunity for parole. … Edmo’s doctors and mental health professionals … universally agreed gender reassignment surgery is neither medically necessary nor safe given Edmo’s mental state and incarceration.”

These are all relevant points and worth bearing in mind. But in dismissing the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals decision imposing the responsibility for surgery on the state as simply another case of “activist federal judges [who] overstepped yet again,” and warning that the state could be on the hook for big medical payouts in this and other cases like it, he focused on urging opposition to the decision in the name of “what is reasonable and right.”

After all, who wants their hard-earned tax money being used to pay for a sex abuser’s sex-change surgery? It just seems a matter of common sense, right?

But is it that clear-cut?

Two news stories last week, both from the Idaho Press at Nampa, throw some shades of gray on the question.

One took the trouble to ask: How much might the state actually have to pay? The answer seemed to be: Maybe not much, maybe nothing at all. It said, “the state’s contract with its prison health care provider, Corizon Health, includes the cost of appropriate treatment for gender dysphoria, meaning the cost for the inmate’s surgery could be covered by the existing contract.”

The other story stopped to ask what has happened, in recent years, to other prisoners in the Idaho pen system who have had gender issues that went unaddressed behind bars. The answer wasn’t comforting. Their ranks included suicides of at least “three Idaho inmates—two who had gender dysphoria and one who was living with sexual identification issues.”

Bear in mind that, whatever these people did and whatever we may think of them, the people of Idaho are responsible for their well-being as long as they’re in state custody.

This is not an argument that Little and the state are wrong; the facts may be with them. But as Phil Batt found, first impressions can mislead and you often have to do some digging to be sure. In considering questions like this, beware of bumper-sticker simplicity.

Randy Stapilus is a former Idaho newspaper reporter and editor and blogs at www.ridenbaugh.com. He can be reached at stapilus@ridenbaugh.com.

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Small news organizations in rural states aren’t often on the front line of broad public service journalism, but times are changing and one-or-two person shops can make a lot of difference in public awareness of issues if things come together.

A small outbreak of coronavirus at a Fry Foods plant in Weiser gives a prime example of the importance of testing for COVID-19. More than that, it represents a warning shot across the bow of potential pitfalls if we don’t reopen our economy the right way.

As we tiptoe through Stage 2 of Gov. Brad Little’s phased reopening plan and approach a more robust Stage 3, it’s going to become even more important that we take the necessary steps to prevent future outbreaks.

And there will be future outbreaks.

The fact remains that the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19 is still out there. It’s ready to strike again, and without a vaccine, it remains a potentially destructive and fatal disease.

Aggressive and quick testing remains one of the key elements — perhaps the most important element — of controlling outbreaks at this point.

Fry Foods offers an early case study.

The Weiser food processing plant employs 260 people to make onion rings and other food products. It shut down earlier this month when at least seven employees tested positive for the coronavirus.

Fry Foods initially didn’t test all 260 employees at the Weiser facility — only the 50 or 60 who likely came in contact with the employees who tested positive. Other employees were able to get tested on their own.

The Idaho Bureau of Laboratories (state run-laboratories) tested all that they had the capacity to do in one day, according to Kelly Petroff, director of communications for the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare. The state lab can do about has a testing capacity of approximately 200 tests per day.

“We are not prepared to handle this,” Doug Wold, human resources manager for Fry Foods, told the Idaho Statesman, referring to the lack of coordinated response. “If you don’t have an employer who’s willing to be proactive, we’re just going to fail.”

Fortunately, Crush the Curve Idaho, a private, business-led initiative established during the outbreak to increase testing, stepped in and tested every employee at Fry Foods.

By Tuesday of this week, 20 employees — about 8% of the plant’s workforce — had tested positive for the coronavirus, along with at least two of their family members. Nearly all were asymptomatic.

RAPID-RESPONSE TESTING

That’s what needs to happen: rapid-response testing. If you have an outbreak at your workplace, get everyone tested. For those who test positive, keep them home and isolated. For those who test negative, they can keep on working and you’re back in business.

When the outbreak hit Fry Foods, company officials made the decision to shut the plant down.

Without adequate testing, that’s unfortunately the right thing to do. Without testing, you have no idea whether you have seven infected employees, 70 or 270.

We applaud Fry Foods company officials for making the tough call to shut down, even though they were given the green light by the Southwest District Health Department to resume operations.

Coronavirus is stealthy. A person can carry coronavirus longer without symptoms, potentially spreading to others unwittingly. Some people who carry coronavirus have no symptoms at all.

We are encouraged that Crush the Curve Idaho stepped up and stepped in here.

But Idaho needs a more concerted and organized plan to do rapid-response testing.

We are a fragmented health system. Health providers include Saint Alphonsus, St. Luke’s, Primary Health, Saltzer, among others. Then think about all the entities who pay for health care: Blue Cross of Idaho, Regence BlueShield, PacificSource, SelectHealth, etc. Throw in Medicare, Medicaid and those who are uninsured.

Even our own government health management system is fragmented, with the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare and seven independent health districts not operated by the state.

And, in the case of Fry Foods, situated in a city bordering Oregon, workers were from two states.

NO COORIDINATED EFFORTS

No wonder Fry Foods officials were at a loss for where to turn for help. Without some sort of coordinated effort to test all employees and somehow pay for those tests, shutting down the plant was the best option.

It’s worth noting that the Fry Foods employee who initially had coronavirus was at a family gathering of a larger number than outlined in the governor’s reopening plan and was with visitors from out of state, two violations of the governor’s guidelines. That’s why we have the guidelines, and that’s why it’s important to follow the guidelines. Otherwise, this is what you get: an outbreak that shuts down an entire food manufacturing plant.

Unfortunately, shutting down operations every time there’s an outbreak is not going to get the job done.

And there will be more outbreaks as we reopen our economy, reopen factories and workplaces.

Idaho has a lot to be optimistic about, and we have a golden opportunity to lead the nation in reopening our economy in the face of the coronavirus pandemic. We have had relatively few cases (around 2,300) and few deaths (77). Our early efforts to shut down parts of our social interactions and Little’s quick call to issue a statewide stay-home order clearly have paid off. Idahoans’ adherence to the stay-home order has helped to flatten the curve and control the number of new cases. Residents and businesses, alike, have done their part to make this happen.

Our hope is that Idaho can chug along through the stages of reopening. Our fear is that if we don’t do this the right way, we’ll have a surge and we’ll be back to a statewide stay-home order. Nobody wants that.

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