Federal Judge Orders Thousands of Prison Inmates Moved Because of Fungus

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

California blew off a federal court monitor after being told a few months ago that it had to move 3,300 inmates out of two prisons because of a “public health emergency” caused by Valley Fever.

Now, the U.S. District Court judge who has been clashing with the state over reducing its grossly overcrowded prison population has given the state 90 days to find new homes for thousand of those at-risk inmates at Avenal and Pleasant Valley state prisons. Both prisons are located within 175 miles of San Francisco and hold a total of 8,100 inmates.

Judge Thelton Henderson dismissed the state’s plea for a reprieve of several months until the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) completes prison health studies and ordered that they begin to phase in relocation within a week. The judge altered the request from federal receiver J. Clark Kelso by excluding any inmates who have already had the disease and are not at risk of getting it a second time.

The noncontagious, yet sometimes fatal fungus infection, known as coccidioidomycosis, is not a new problem for the state. The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) was already on familiar terms with the fungus in a 1998 orientation booklet (pdf), where the presence of “cocci” in soil, and affinity for African-Americans, Filipinos, Asians and Native Americans were well-known.

The disease generally starts in the lungs from inhaled spores and is often fought off by a body’s immune system. But it can quickly become a serious complication, like meningitis, and cause permanent damage, if not death. Inmates with HIV or otherwise compromised immune systems are at higher risk. There were more than 20,000 cases of Valley Fever in 2011, according to the CDC—70% in Arizona.

When Kelso was rebuffed by the state, he wrote to federal judges that the refusal “even to take preliminary steps . . . suggest that they may not yet possess the requisite concern for preventing unnecessary morbidity and death among inmates to justify further transition of the prison medical system back to Defendants’ control,” according to the Los Angeles Times.

The state claims it has been aware of, and addressing, the problem since 2007. Around 60 inmates died after contracting Valley Fever between 2006 and January 2013, according to the San Francisco Chronicle.

–Ken Broder


To Learn More:

Judge: Move Inmates at Risk of Valley Fever (by Bob Egelko, San Francisco Chronicle)

Judge Orders Some Inmates at High Risk of Valley Fever out of Two Prisons (by Casey Christie, Bakersfield Californian)

Judge: California Must Move Inmates in Two Prisons Because of Fungus (by Don Thompson, Associated Press)

Court Receiver Says Brown Ignores Prison Conditions (by Paige St. John, Los Angeles Times)

State Unfazed by Order to Move Thousands of Prison Inmates in “Public Health Emergency” (by Ken Broder, AllGov California)

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