For more than a decade, lawsuits have been piling up against California from inmates who contracted the fungal disease valley fever while incarcerated in state prison. Most plaintiffs have lost. Now, many of them are turning to a higher court.
A group of 117 currently and formerly incarcerated people petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court in late June and early July to argue California’s Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation put them at risk of developing valley fever. The petition calls for the Supreme Court to review a decision by the Ninth Circut Court of Appeals to reject an earlier valley fever lawsuit.
Benjamin Pavone, San Diego attorney and lead counsel on the petition, says that before taking on this case, he had been taking a break from prison lawsuits. “And I started getting letters pleading with me, ‘help us, we’re getting sick, there’s this disease,’” he says. “It was unlike anything else. These letters are really heartfelt, they changed my whole mindset about it.”
Most valley fever cases remain mild, resolving themselves with only minor symptoms, but severe cases can spread beyond the lungs and become disseminated throughout the body, causing debilitating side effects and requiring long-term medical care. In 2011, the case rates in Pleasant Valley State Prison in Fresno County and Avenal State Prison in Kings County were hundreds of times higher than the state average. Over a 10-year period, dozens of inmates throughout California died.
Pavone argues the department of corrections knew some inmates were more at risk than others, yet did little to protect them. “It’s like anything else. If you have a nuclear meltdown you go into a whole mode of precautions, and they just didn’t do anything,” Pavone says.
The suit names 14 defendants, including officials at individual prisons as well as the former head of state prisons and Former Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, all of whom the suit alleges failed to protect inmates. “They thought of it, they bandied some ideas between them, but they just didn’t take it seriously,” he says.
The Supreme Court Justices will announce in October whether they will see this case. If they decline, Pavone says he’ll continue working in lower courts and possibly take this case to the United Nations.
This story has been edited to correct the name of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. An earlier version of the story referred to it as the Ninth District Court of Appeals.