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Balla v. Idaho: Prison Reform the Hard Way

Updated: Jun 3, 2022

Walter “Bud” Balla was not the kind of guy to just do his time. After committing a brazen robbery, Balla was sent to prison. Instead of sitting back and trying to make the best of his time behind the wall at the Idaho State Penitentiary, he decided to break out - a few times. When those attempts ultimately failed, he shifted his focus to improving the prison conditions of himself and his fellow inmates. His various escapes helped influence policies at the prison, but Balla’s legacy was in the legal action he took against those who held him there.

The initial crime that landed Balla in prison was intensely traumatizing to the family of Jack Winslow, manager of the Albertsons store at the Vista Village shopping center in Boise, Idaho. In April of 1968, Balla and William Burt showed up at Winslow’s house and waited for him outside. When Winslow did not arrive home, the pair, each with a pistol in hand, knocked on his front door. Jack's wife, Ann Winslow opened the door, and the robbers politely asked to come inside to wait for Jack to arrive. They explained their plan to Mrs. Winslow, telling her that they would wait for Jack to come home, then take him back to the Albertsons store so that Jack could empty the contents of the safe for them. Mrs. Winslow gave a physical description of the men to the police, but added that they were very nice to her and described them as “gentleman bandits”.

Boise's Vista Village Albertsons store was the second Albertsons in Boise-Brent Melander

While waiting, the two mixed themselves a drink and then each had a beer. After imbibing, they prepared nylon ropes and tape. At around 11: 30 p.m. Jack opened the door to see a gun pointed at his face. Another gun was pointed at the head of his four-year-old son named Todd. The robbers explained what they wanted, and then tied up Ann and Todd. Scott, the other young son of the Winslow’s was loaded up in the family’s car with a gun to his head. Jack drove to the Albertsons store where he opened the safe, divesting the store of its cash reserve. Initially, the loss was reported at $6,000 but later statements said it was "significantly less". After the thieves got the loot, they returned Jack and Scott back home, physically unharmed. After the bad guys sped off in the family’s car, Jack was able to loosen his bonds enough to wriggle over to a neighbor's house for help. The car was found the next morning abandoned off Ustick Road and Mountain View Drive.

A few days later, Burt and Balla were arrested in Pendleton, Oregon. They were returned to Idaho where they both pled guilty, given 25-year sentences, and transferred to the Idaho State Penitentiary, what we now call the Old Pen. On August 28, 1968, just a year after he landed in the big house, Balla attempted to walk out the front gate. He and another inmate were working on a paint crew in the maximum security cellhouse when they seized a correctional officer who was on duty. They pressed a sharp instrument against his neck, bound him with an electrical cord, and walked him to the prison’s gate where they demanded to be freed. Instead of freedom, they were met with a burst of automatic gunfire. The convicts dropped their weapons, and the hostage was able to get away with just a bump on the head. Later in court, they told the judge they were drunk on prison-made alcohol, known in the Idaho prison system as “squawkie”.

Balla's first booking photo at the Idaho State Pen-Lewiston Tribune

In 1972, Balla was given the chance to move to the prison farm at Eagle Island. Shortly after his arrival he walked away but was quickly captured. After that escape, Balla was held in maximum security but a court had ordered him to be placed into the general population where he was given the opportunity to go to class in a building in the Number Two Yard at the Pen.

The entrance to the prison farm. Eagle Island is now a popular family recreation destination.-ISHS Photo Collection

October 25, 1973, while the correctional officer was busy locking up after class, Balla and two other inmates ran for the fence, which was 12 feet tall and topped with razor wire. The correctional officer manning the north tower of the prison saw what was happening and fired four rounds from his shotgun, striking Balla in the chest.

Tower from which Walter Balla was shot during his third escape attempt-Author Photo

Despite his injury, he continued to climb and was able to get free of the prison, but was rounded up a few hours later hiding in some bushes along Warm Springs Avenue not far from the prison. The south tower at the prison was not manned at the time because the prison was short-staffed, a condition that the Idaho Department of Correction has not been able to remedy to this day. After medical treatment at Saint Alphonsus, he was returned to prison. He would only have a short time left at the old prison, as the brand new Idaho State Correctional Institution to the south of Boise was ready to receive inmates just two months later.

The Old Pen was forced to close because of several riots, the last one burning the chow hall down. ISCI was still under construction, had been for approximately 13 years, but was forced to open earlier than planned because of the unrest at the more than 100-year-old prison.-ISHS Photo Collection

He really did not find the new prison much more to his liking. Balla joined the Inmate Advisory Council (IAC) and quickly took on a leadership role in that organization. In 1975 a letter he wrote to the U.S. Attorney General was printed in the newspaper. The letter speaks of formal complaints filed by the IAC to Governor Cecil Andrus, accusing the state Board of Corrections of neglect and malfeasance of office. In response, Balla said, Governor Andrus ordered an investigation, which the inmates claimed lasted for only 48 hours. Balla mentioned that the inmates were promised there would be no repercussions for the complaints, but since it was filed inmates had been written up for made-up rule violations; items that had previously been fully stocked had been removed from the commissary, personal property was taken from inmates, and the staff was generally harassing the prison population. Balla claimed he had been written up for helping compose a letter to the governor, which prevented him from being granted parole.

Inmates unpacking their belongings from army trucks at their new home, the Idaho State Correctional Institution, which came to be known as The Yard. ISHS Photo Collection

In reality, the governor had appointed a neutral panel composed of leaders from other states’ Departments of Correction and led by a newsman from Twin Falls, Idaho. Even so, the results of the investigation were just as Balla and the other inmates expected; completely useless in making the prison a better place. When pleas to administrators and politicians failed, Balla went to the courts. He filed a lawsuit against the state for several grievances, but when the lawsuit came across the docket, it had to be dismissed because the petitioner could not be found. Balla had escaped from prison once again.

On the evening of November 6, 1978, Balla was a patient at Saint Alphonsus Hospital in Boise where he was awaiting leg surgery. He was being guarded by a single, unarmed correctional officer named Henry Carlile. Suddenly, three men burst into the room where Balla was kept and a brief struggle ensued. When it was over, Balla and his accomplices were gone, leaving Officer Carlile with his throat slit. As the officer recovered at Saint Luke’s Hospital, one of the state’s largest-ever manhunts ensued. Police believed that Balla and one of the men who helped him were hiding out in the foothills above Boise. They called in officers from all over the area to comb the hills with assistance from helicopters and tracking dogs from Canyon County Sheriff's Office. After a week, all of the people believed to have helped Balla escape were rounded up, but Balla remained missing.

That was until about six months later when a detective with the Ada County Sheriff's office received a phone call from Saskatchewan, Canada. A man meeting Balla’s description had been arrested for driving a stolen truck. After the warrant was confirmed, Balla was extradited and returned to the Idaho State Correctional Institution (ISCI, colloquially known as “The Yard”). When he was arraigned on the escape charge, it was done via camera and television monitor to prevent another escape attempt. Cutting edge technology in 1980.

Around the time Balla was being returned from his international jaunt, tensions at ISCI came to a head. On July 23rd, 1980 correctional officers raided a cell house and confiscated items deemed contraband. When a group of inmates saw laundry carts full of their personal belongings being wheeled out, all the anger they felt toward the prison administration exploded on that hot summer day. Two correctional officers were taken hostage, windows were smashed, and several fires were set. The two C/Os were released after hours of face-to-face negotiations in a hot, smoky cell block, and the prison was retaken without any major injuries or deaths, but not before millions of dollars of damage was done to the facility.

Inmates in between Units 9 and 11 during the 1980 riot at ISCI-IDOC, edited by James Du Toit

But it was his next legal maneuver for which Balla’s name will ever be remembered in Idaho’s correctional and legal history. In 1981, he renewed his lawsuit against the State of Idaho, the Board of Corrections, and the Director of the Idaho Department of Corrections. This quickly turned into a class-action lawsuit in which every inmate housed at the Idaho State Correctional Institution was represented. Walter Balla was appointed as the class representative, and another inmate, Dean Swartzmiller was appointed as the lead lay attorney after the court failed to find attorneys to represent the inmate class. Basically, what this means, is that the inmates of ISCI sued the state without the benefit of an attorney to represent them.

Walter Balla, not dated but probably upon his return from Canada-Lewiston Tribune

The grievances that the inmates brought to the 9th District Court were many, yet simple. The first issue was that despite the prison only being about eight years old when the lawsuit was filed, it was already dangerously overcrowded, meaning that it was impossible for correctional officers to maintain a safe environment. Beatings, brutal gang rapes, and even “sexual slavery” were said to be the norm at the prison which came to be known as the “The Yard”. The inmate classification system often allowed vulnerable young offenders to be placed on the same tier as violent criminals. Adding to this problem was that the facility was continuously short-staffed, a situation that IDOC’s administration can never seem to rectify. Even the staff that was present, it was testified, were afraid to walk on many of the tiers of the prison, and often avoided doing their hourly tier checks.

Various inmate made weapons show just how dangerous a place ISCI was-Mark Mauno via Flikr

Another issue brought forth by the inmate class was the lack of access to healthcare. ISCI had a large, modern infirmary yet it was locked 24 hours a day and was little more than a showpiece. Two doctors would visit the facility to take care of medical needs, but they were only on-site for about 8 hours a week total, leaving the majority of medical issues to be treated by medical staff who were not adequately trained. There was usually no emergency care available, and when it was, it was up to a correctional officer to determine if a medical problem really was an emergency. There was also an issue of medically prescribed diets not being fulfilled by the prison’s food service. This left many inmates without a way to manage conditions such as diabetes.

The cafeteria at ISCI is known as Pendyne-short for Penitentiary Dining. Before the new prison was opened, reporters and law enforcement from around the area were invited to tour the facility. They were served coffee and ice cream in Pendyne.

ISHS Photo Collection

There were some other issues listed, such as the lack of adequate clothing available for those inmates in segregation units. IDOC gave these inmates old Hughes Airway Company jumpsuits which came in different colors, allowing officers to differentiate segregation levels. The problem was that the jumpsuits were too thin for the high desert winters. Food being served to segregated prisoners was also an issue but supposedly fixed before the trial began. The plaintiffs also alleged they were not given due process for disciplinary and parole hearings.

In its ruling, the court decided that the violent conditions under which inmates were forced to live were a violation of the 8th Amendment protection against cruel and unusual punishment. Furthermore, the lack of medical care rose to the level of deliberate indifference. This is a legal term meaning that the state acted with a reckless disregard for a situation it knew could cause substantial harm. The judge ordered IDOC to come up with plans to correct the violations. Warden A.J. Arave had this to say about the ruling, “I think it's a new day. It's a new way of life. The institution will never be the same just because it's the first day of the court order…” Arave seemed hopeful that the state would be able to comply with the order, but Balla was not as optimistic. He felt that the ruling did not go far enough to make compelling changes to the prison.

Balla’s anxiety was proven to be correct, as his lawsuit stuck around much longer than he did. On April 14, 1990, Walter Balla walked out of the Idaho State Correctional Institution once more. This time, however, he went out the front gate and was by all legal definitions, a free man. After serving around 21 years, he was granted parole on the condition that he leave the state. As soon as it could be arranged, he got on an airplane and flew to Alaska. There he was given work cleaning up oil from the Exxon-Valdez disaster, worked on a salmon fishing boat, and then went on to own his own mobile truck washing business. Alaska court records show a couple of misdemeanors to which Balla pled guilty, as well as a handful of civil cases he was named in, but it seems that he left his days of courtroom drama and prison sentences behind in Idaho.

Walter Balla, a year and a half before his release-Lewiston Tribune

After that, Bud Balla faded into history. A death record from California shows him passing away there on June 5th, 1998 but no additional details could be found. The legacy he left was Balla v. Idaho. For years, IDOC tried to terminate the lawsuit, but the inmates would argue in court that the order was not being followed and the court would force the state to keep making changes. At one point, a special master was appointed by the court to monitor the progress of the prison but found that IDOC was lying to the court about several of its changes. A public record request from IDOC revealed that between 2006 and 2021, $1.6 million was spent on attorney fees in the case. This represents just a small percentage of the perhaps 100s of millions of dollars spent on the Balla case. Two prisons, the Idaho Maximum Security Institution and Idaho Correctional Institution-Orofino were both built as a direct result of the lawsuit, for a total cost of around $50 million. 39 years after it was first filed, and after much hard work by IDOC officials, a federal judge ended the lawsuit in June 2020, but many of the changes that Balla brought have become permanent fixtures at the Idaho State Correctional Institution.

"WE WILL OVERCOME" was graffitied onto the wall of one of the housing units during the 1980 riot. A representation of the inmate's will to improve their situation during the 70s and 80s. -IDOC, edited by James Du Toit

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