The federal court monitor overseeing healthcare in California prisons has told the state that it must immediately move around 3,300 inmates out of two facilities where 8,200 are housed because of a “public health emergency” from Valley Fever.
The state is just days away from having to submit a plan to the federal courts to reduce the prison population by 9,000 inmates. The directive from the federal monitor, Clark Kelso, complicates matters. Governor Jerry Brown had initially defied the court’s order to continue its effort at shrinking overcrowded prisons, and CDCR spokesman Jeffrey Callison said the state wants to coordinate any Valley Fever prisoner moves with the larger realignment that is shifting the flow of inmates from prisons to county jails.
The noncontagious, yet sometimes fatal fungus infection, known as coccidioidomycosis, is not a new problem for the state. The 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 and is often fought off by a body’s immune system. But it can quickly become a serious complication, like meningitis, and cause serious, 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 U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention—70% in Arizona.
Valley Fever briefly burst upon the California public scene in 2006. The California Department of Healthcare began documenting the history of illness and death at Central California prisons, where the problems was most acute. The New York Times wrote about Pleasant Valley State Prison, one of the two Central California prisons now under scrutiny, in December 2007. (The other facility is Avenal State Prison.)
By then, 900 prisoners at the prison had contracted the fever in the past three years. One in 10 prisoners at Pleasant Valley tested positive for the disease in 2006.
The state’s response to what it acknowledged was a costly and dangerous illness was to focus on mitigation measures involving soil control. It was still working on mitigation measures as of a month ago, according to the Los Angeles Times.