While the state ponders how to comply with federal court orders to move around 2,600 prisoners from two prisons in Central California because of Valley Fever, a class-action lawsuit has been filed on their behalf seeking lifetime medical care for their maladies.
The lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court on behalf of prisoners susceptible to the sometimes fatal illness who have been housed at Pleasant Valley State Prison in Fresno County and Avenal State Prison in Kings County since July 2009. It alleges that state and prison officials knew that certain minority groups and immune-deficient inmates were at high-risk of getting Valley Fever, otherwise known as coccidioidomycosis or “cocci,” but failed to protect them.
The suit contends that, “Approximately 40 inmates in the custody and control of defendants have died from “cocci” complications within the past seven years.” State health agencies began documenting the history of illness and death from the disease in 2006 and, according to the lawsuit, identified a number of preventive measures—measures that were never taken.
U.S. District Judge Thelton E. Henderson told the state in April that it had 90 days to move about 40% of the 8,200 prisoners, but California officials, who are already wrestling with court orders to reduce its overcrowded prison system by more than 9,000 inmates, didn’t announce they would comply until two weeks ago.
However, they didn’t say how they would do it.
The noncontagious infection 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.
The lawsuit seeks punitive damages from the state and the formulation of a court-supervised medical monitoring program for affected inmates.
Last August, the U.S. government agreed to a $425,000 settlement (pdf) with a former inmate who acquired the disease while serving time at the federal Taft Correctional Institution in Kern County. Feldman & Wallach, which brought the complaint, also represents clients in the state class-action suit.
Attorney Ian Wallach told the Associated Press that the state regularly releases severely infected prisoners with a 30-day supply of medication that costs $2,000 a month to obtain. “Without the medicine, they will die,” Wallach said. “With the medicine, their quality of life is still unbearable.”