East Bay Express: State to send more inmates to fungal-infected prisons

Aug 15, 2013

The deadly disease lies dormant during dry summers in Central California, but it comes alive when the rains arrive in fall. Causing flu-like symptoms, it goes airborne, with spores that root in the soft tissue of your lungs. Californians have a higher chance of contracting the disease than chickenpox, hepatitis, or West Nile virus, according to the health care news organization Reporting on Health. The fungal infection known as valley fever also has a preference for people of certain ethnic backgrounds. In the prisons of California's Central Valley, about 70 percent of the victims have been African-American.

In June, a federal judge ordered the state to transfer certain prisoners who are more susceptible to the disease, including African Americans, Filipinos, and those with compromised immune systems, out of two state prisons that have been plagued by valley fever for years: Avenal and Pleasant Valley, both of which are located just off Interstate 5, about halfway between Oakland and Los Angeles. But now, family members of some inmates, along with prisoner advocates, say the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) is planning to transfer into the infected prisons black, Filipino, and Asian Pacific Islander inmates, even though they are genetically predisposed to the disease.

The reasons for CDCR's decision are unclear and may be the result of mistakes made in classifying the inmates' ethnic backgrounds. But regardless, Community groups, including the Asian Prisoner Support Committee, say these planned transfers will amount to a "death sentence" for the prisoners.

Since 2006, at least forty inmates have died from coccidioidomycosis infections. In April, Dr. John Galgiani, a medical researcher at the University of Arizona who has studied valley fever for the last three decades, testified before a federal judge that the situation at the prisons constitutes a "public health emergency," and recommended the state shut down the prisons.

But CDCR officials are planning instead to transfer into the prisons white and Latino inmates whom they contend are at lower risk of getting sick. Inmate advocates, however, say the process is flawed. "We know that the actual CDCR process is not always accurate," said Ben Wang of the Asian Prisoner Support Committee. "For example, some Filipinos may be categorized as other ethnic groups." People with immune system disabilities such as HIV/AIDS are also at increased risk for contracting valley fever, but Wang said "the prisoners are not being medically screened before their transfers, so some people with high-risk medical conditions may be missed."

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