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State Raises Questions About Moving Inmates At Risk of Valley Fever

CA Dept of Corrections

In a motion filed in U.S. District Court yesterday, the state Attorney General raised questions about the federal order to exclude inmates especially vulnerable to valley fever from two Central Valley prisons.

“The receiver is calling for the transferring, he described it last week as ‘effective immediately,’ of over 3,000 inmates from those two prisons,” says Jeffrey Callison, spokesman for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. “That’s a huge, complex undertaking. Could it happen? Of course it could happen, but it would take a long time to implement.”

Callison says it’s too quick to implement the receiver’s recommendations, for logistical and public health reasons. He also said the issue is still making its way through the court system.

“In its motion yesterday with the court, the state detailed some of the many questions that need to be resolved when you transfer even one inmate from one prison to another prison, let alone thousands of prisoners, in short order, so before the state could undertake that kind of complex procedure, there are other steps that need to be gone through first.”

A hearing on the matter is scheduled for June 17.

J. Clark Kelso is the federal receiver in charge of health care in California’s prisons. Last Monday, he ordered that inmates who are at high-risk of contracting valley fever, and more likely to die from the disease, should be expelled from Avenal State Prison in Kings County and Pleasant Valley State Prison in Fresno County. The goal of the policy is to reduce the risks of the disease to a “reasonable level.”

The order, filed with the court May 1, pertains to African Americans and Filipinos. According to the document, black inmates had a 90 percent higher risk of the disease leaving the lungs and spreading to other parts of the body than white inmates. Blacks comprise about one-fourth of the population at Pleasant Valley and Avenal prisons.

The directive also impacts inmates older than 55, pregnant inmates, and inmates with HIV or suppressed immune systems. The policy was updated last Wednesday to also include inmates with diabetes. With that addition, an estimated 50 percent of inmates at the two prisons will now be impacted by the order.

Donald Specter is the executive director of the Prison Law Office in Berkeley. His organization brought the lawsuit that resulted in the prison’s medical care system being put under receivership. In September, the office alerted the receiver to the fact that the state had been unsuccessful in reducing rates of valley fever since 2006.

Specter says valley fever is another health issue that the state hasn’t responded to appropriately.

“Unfortunately, they have not treated it like it’s a public health emergency,” Specter says. “They’ve treated it just as business as usual. If this kind of injury or death had happened in the free world, those institutions would have been closed long ago.”

Kelso agrees. The receiver’s May 1 court filing says the state did undertake some efforts to reduce dust at the institutions. But it alleges the state has moved slowly to develop a plan for responding to the ongoing threat of valley fever at the prisons.

As part of the directive, the receiver has also instructed the prison system to request the help of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health, to study valley fever cases at the two prisons.

Specter says this data could help determine the next steps.

“We are interested to hear those results,” he says. “They will tell us whether there are any ways the risk can be mitigated and if not, closing the prisons might be the only alternative.”

Jason Feldman is a Venice-based lawyer who helped a former Taft Correctional Institution inmate earn a settlement from the U.S. government after the inmate acquired valley fever in the federal prison. Feldman says the health care directive is a step in the right direction, but he says he would like to see the directive expanded.

“Short of closing these prisons, this is a step in the right direction, but it’s not a complete solution by any means,” Feldman says.

“We’d like to see this go even further – this focuses on the two prisons that have the largest problem, but there are several other prisons and institutions in the San Joaquin Valley that could use a directive like this, or similar to this.”

Health experts say that both Pleasant Valley and Avenal State Prison are located in areas where prisoners are exposed to the airborne fungus that causes valley fever. In 2005, the valley fever rate at Pleasant Valley was 600 times the rate of Fresno County.

Experts say there are several reasons inmates experience high rates of valley fever. Many come from outside the region, so they have never been exposed to the fungus that causes the disease. They spend lots of time outdoors in the dusty prison yard, where they could inhale the spores. And, many inmates already have weakened immune systems, due to disease like AIDS or hepatitis.

Rebecca Plevin was a reporter for Valley Public Radio from 2013-2014. Before joining the station, she was the community health reporter for Vida en el Valle, the McClatchy Company's bilingual newspaper in California's San Joaquin Valley. She earned the George F. Gruner Award for Meritorious Public Service in Journalism and the McClatchy President's Award for her work at Vida, as well as honors from the National Association of Hispanic Publications and the California Newspaper Publishers Association. Plevin grew up in the Washington, D.C. area and is a graduate of Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism. She is also a fluent Spanish speaker, a certified yoga teacher, and an avid rock-climber.
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