More steps needed to protect prisoners, staff from valley fever


June 19, 2013 

Whatever crimes they committed, the inmates at two state prisons in the San Joaquin Valley weren't given death sentences. Yet state officials' sluggish response to a continuing outbreak of valley fever is putting prisoners at an unacceptable risk of serious illness, even death.

A lawyer for the inmates told a federal judge Monday that last year and in January, 18 inmates died from complications of valley fever, caused by a fungus in the soil that is carried by dust. That brings the toll since 2006 to nearly three dozen deaths and hundreds of hospitalizations.

The Prison Law Office and J. Clark Kelso, appointed by a federal court to oversee prison medical care, are urging that 3,250 of the 8,100 inmates at Pleasant Valley prison in Coalinga and at nearby Avenal prison be moved out immediately. Most are in minimum and medium security lockup.

While it plans to finish transferring about 600 medically high-risk inmates by August, the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation is balking at the bigger relocation while federal health experts finish a study on how to reduce valley fever at the two prisons. A preliminary report is due later this month, with a full report in December.

But how many inmates or staff might be infected in the meantime?

The issue is before U.S. District Judge Thelton Henderson. His first duty is clear — he must protect the health of prisoners and guards.

That should trump the arguments made by the Brown administration that it would be too complicated to relocate so many inmates when it still is under another federal court order to reduce prison crowding statewide to help improve health care for inmates.

The corrections department also says it has not been "deliberately indifferent" to what it calls the "evasive" problem of valley fever. It has upgraded air filters, tested and stabilized soil, handed out dust masks and educated inmates and staff.

Clearly, though, it hasn't been enough. What's more troubling is that the department has known about this problem since at least 2006. In 2007, the state refused to spend $750,000 for improvements at one prison and a year later blocked a previous study by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, according to news reports.

Now, the state spends more than $23 million a year to treat prisoners for valley fever. While most infections lead at worst to mild to severe flu-like symptoms, a few spread from the lungs to the brain, causing blindness, abscesses and, sometimes, death. Blacks, Filipinos, the elderly and those with other medical issues are more susceptible.

The department says a large transfer would be a logistical nightmare. To avoid overcrowding other prisons, a roughly equal number would have to move to Pleasant Valley and Avenal — and they couldn't be in the higher risk groups. Officials would also have to make sure each inmate's new prison has the services they need, but doesn't have an enemy or rival gang.

All are legitimate concerns, but the most urgent danger is to the health of inmates and staff at Pleasant Valley and Avenal. Henderson needs to make sure the state gets that message.

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