This post has been updated. See the note below for details.
California corrections officials are seeking help from other state agencies before moving on recommendations to divert large numbers of inmates from valley fever-stricken prisons.
“The health and safety of our employees and of the inmates housed in our prisons is of the utmost importance," the state corrections department said in a statement. It was released after lawyers for inmates on Wednesday asked a federal judge to order California to stop sending at-risk inmates to the two San Joaquin Valley prisons where valley fever has been tied to 43 inmate deaths.
Though prisoners' lawyers accuse the state of taking little action, state prison officials said they have met with them and state health officials to develop "a coordinated approach to this complex issue."
The department has assembled a work group to develop the state's own response plan, said spokeswoman Deborah Hoffman. "We will continue to work to implement mitigation measures to ensure the safest possible environment in our institutions," she said.
California's court-appointed medical receiver in November 2012 recommended the state suspend the transfer of African American, diabetic and HIV-positive inmates to Pleasant Valley and Avenal state prisons, and request assistance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Documents show California instead sought assistance from the state health department and, last month, the state Department of Industrial Relations. The corrections department asked for help in understanding why valley fever rates are much higher in prisons than other state facilities in the same region, such as a psychiatric hospital.
Valley fever, contracted from exposure to Cocci spores in the soil, causes mild symptoms in most individuals, but has a greater tendency to develop into lethal pneumonia and meningitis in some groups.
[Updated, 9:45 a.m. PDT March 21: The prison system, meanwhile, is transferring inmates with chronic medical conditions out of those two prisons. As of Thursday, the receiver reported there were still 408 patients at Avenal and 199 patients at Pleasant Valley awaiting transfer out.]
[Updated, 4:50 p.m. PDT March 21: U.S. District Judge Thelton Henderson late Thursday ordered the state and lawyers representing inmates to attempt to resolve a dispute over whether the state should stop sending at-risk inmates to Avenal and Pleasant Valley. They have until April 19 to try, and if they fail, Henderson said he will hear the dispute in June.]