Politics, government and public life for Southern California

State prisons won't rush to move inmates at risk for Valley Fever

Pleasant Valley State Prison is one of the rural facilities where inmates are particularly susceptible to Valley Fever. California’s Central Valley has the highest rates of the disease in the state.

Despite a directive from the federal receiver who oversees California prison healthcare, a spokesman for the state Department of Corrections says the agency will not immediately transfer about 3,300 inmates from two Central Valley prisons rife with Valley Fever.

Valley Fever — a fungal infection also called Coccidioidomycosis that can cause flu-like symptoms — is not contagious. People contract it by inhaling airborne spores dislodged from the soil. California’s Central Valley has the highest rates of the disease in the state.  The rate inside Pleasant Valley and Avenal prisons is even higher. 

Over a recent five-year stretch, 36 inmates at those prisons died of Valley Fever. Some 71 percent of them were African-American. The disease contributed to the deaths of another 40 inmates and hundreds more were hospitalized for treatment.

Federal receiver Clark Kelso on Monday directed the Department of Corrections to transfer all inmates at the two prisons who are African-American, Filipino or of  Eastern-European or Middle-Eastern descent. Anyone over the age of 55 and inmates undergoing chemotherapy or suffering from HIV or any illness that compromises the immune system must also transfer to a safer prison.

"All of the data that we collected since 2006 shows that Pleasant Valley State Prison and Avenal State Prison are two of what we would call real hotspots,” said Joyce Hayhoe, a spokeswoman for Kelso. “That’s why the receiver's decided we must adopt a stricter policy.”

Corrections Department spokesman Jeffrey Callison said Tuesday that the agency could move those inmates, but added, "we need to make sure that it addresses the problem at hand and also that it does it in a way that respects the overall integrity of the prison system — and  makes sure that we don’t inadvertently violate other federal court orders in the process."

The receiver's directive comes just days before California corrections officials must submit a plan to shed 9,000 inmates from state prisons by the end of the year.

Callison says barring so many inmates from two state prisons could force the department to overcrowd other institutions just to comply with Kelso's directive.  Given the financial cost, logistical challenges and the risks, Callison said, the department needs time to come up with a plan that works.

 “We could take all those inmates out of those prisons and still have people getting Valley Fever," he said. "Which is why we’ve been focusing on mitigation efforts.”

California prisons officials have been grappling with Valley Fever since 2006.  That's when California’s Department of Healthcare found that inmates with compromised immune systems were especially vulnerable.  They also found that certain racial groups are more susceptible.

The Corrections Department restricts inmates who suffer from severe HIV infections from the two prisons.  They also bar inmates with chronic lung diseases that require the use of oxygen tanks. 

Prison officials have also tried to treat the prison's soil.  But court experts determined in 2012 that none of the measures have worked.

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