Inmate Moves Ordered to Avoid Valley Fever

California prison officials are in trouble for foot-dragging again.  On Monday, a federal judge gave the state 90 days to transfer thousands of inmates at risk of valley fever, including all African-Americans and some Filipino prisoners, out of two prisons with high rates of disease.

Valley fever is a fungal disease that is potentially fatal and is caused by inhaling spores from infected soil, most commonly in California’s Central Valley.  It is also known that African-Americans, Filipinos, diabetics and inmates with compromised immune systems are more susceptible to the disease.

Although 62 inmates have died between 2006 and 2013 after contracting valley fever, the state has resisted large scale transfers and has failed to improve conditions at prisons with high rates of valley fever.

U.S. District Judge Thelton Henderson has had enough.  He ordered the state to remove vulnerable inmates from Pleasant Valley and Avenal prisons, pointing out the rate of valley fever at Pleasant Valley was 52 times higher and Avenal 10 times higher than the county with the highest rate in California.

In 2008-09 fiscal year, 355 inmates required hospitalization at a cost of nearly $24 million a year.

The two worst prisons experienced the highest costs and between 2006 and 2007, 27 inmates statewide died of the fever.

In a study of 36 inmate deaths between 2006 and 2011, the prisons’ court-appointed receiver found 70 percent were African-American and 76 percent had HIV or diabetes, increasing their risk of death.

The state had asked that the court allow it to wait on large-scale transfers until two federal health agency inspections.

“Perhaps at one point, defendants’ wait-and-see approach might have been reasonable,” Henderson wrote.  “Under current conditions, however, they are not.”

He pointed out that four years ago the state, for unexplained reasons, stopped the federal agency inspection it says is required now before it takes further action.

He concludes that the state has acknowledged valley fever “presents a serious risk to inmate health, yet they propose to take no further action until receiving final recommendations from the CDC [Centers for Disease Control] at some unknown time.”

He said the state as “demonstrated its unwillingness to respond adequately to the health care needs” of prisoners and thus he ordered them to transfer all inmates classified as high-risk.  The state must implement the policy within seven days and complete the transfers within 90 days.

In addition, prison medical staff must undergo increased training to spot valley fever symptoms.

Case:   Plata v. Brown, No. C01-1351TEH