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Inmate lawyers call valley fever a prison health crisis

March 20, 2013|By Paige St. John

Lawyers for California prison inmates charge that the state has done little to protect inmates from contracting valley fever, a sometimes lethal fungal disease prevalent in the southern San Joaquin Valley.

In a court motion filed Tuesday, those lawyers allege that the state has ignored recommendations made in November by a federal medical receiver that include suspending the transfer of African Americans and individuals with diabetes, HIV or immune deficiencies to the two prisons in that valley.

From 2006 to 2011, the motion contends, 36 inmates had valley fever when they died. Most people who contract the disease experience respiratory problems for weeks to months, but in some cases it spreads throughout the body and can cause meningitis. Those at increased risk for developing the advanced disease include African Americans, Filipinos and Inuits as well as those with compromised immune systems.

The state health department confirmed an outbreak of valley fever at Pleasant Valley State Prison in 2005, documenting 166 cases, at a rate 38 times higher than among residents who live in nearby Coalinga. A court-appointed federal receiver overseeing medical care in the state's beleagured prison system calculated the cost of treating inmates with the disease is an extra $23 million a year.

Since then, prison lawyers contend, California "has done little that matters" and that the prison disease is a "public health emergency." They seek a court order requiring the state to implement the receiver's recommendations, including suspending the transfer of all inmates to Pleasant Valley and Avenal state prisons if other steps fail to curtail the disease. An April 29 hearing in San Francisco before U.S. District Judge Thelton Henderson is set.

The state is in the midst of transferring 1,000 inmates with chronic medical conditions out of Pleasant Valley and Avenal.

paige.stjohn@latimes.com

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