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."
California's prisons are notoriously overcrowded. And the penitentiaries in Central California make for ideal breeding grounds for valley fever. At Pleasant Valley, Galgiani said, the rate of infections was 1,000 times higher than the rate for California in general.
The state has known about the problem since 2006, according to the Prison Law Office, which filed suit on behalf of the prisoners. Federal Judge Thelton Henderson agreed with the group's demand to move the most susceptible prisoners, remarking that by not moving them earlier CDCR and the state "have therefore clearly demonstrated their unwillingness to respond adequately to the health care needs of California's inmate population."
Warren George, an attorney with the Prison Law Office, pointed out that even by transferring out prisoners who are at high risk of contacting the disease, no one's totally safe. "Essentially, you're still sending people there who may be at lower risk, but are still at-risk," he said. "If this were a California State University, or if it were some other public institution other than a prison, they would shut it down. They wouldn't be trying to find some way to mitigate it, and leave people there."
Ben Wang agreed. In this case, a lack of data about minority groups could be deadly. "There's just not a lot of data" on Asian Pacific Islander groups, he noted. When a new prisoner goes through the intake process, they're generally put in one of four categories: black, white, Hispanic, or other, raising the possibility that people who don't fit neatly into the first three categories will be misidentified.
But in a phone interview, CDCR spokesman Jeffrey Callison denied that high-risk prisoners were going to be transferred into the two fungal-plagued prisons.
Nonetheless, family members of prisoners at Vacaville's Solano State Prison say at least four black, Filipino, and Asian Pacific Islander inmates at that facility have been put on the list to transfer to Avenal or Pleasant Valley state prisons, and they're worried they'll lose their loved ones to the illness. The planned transfers prompted a rally outside Solano's gates, with several dozen supporters holding signs bearing messages like "AVENAL IS A DEATH CAMP."
Shelly Joseph, a Filipina whose husband Charles "Bula" Joseph is an Asian Pacific Islander currently incarcerated at Solano, said she showed up at the rally out of concern for her daughter's medical condition. "We come [to Solano] on regular family visits. This is the only way for them to know their father, and to build a relationship [with him]," she said. Her eldest daughter received a liver transplant when she was a newborn; fourteen years later, she still requires a doctor's check-up every six weeks. Joseph is worried that if her husband is transferred, her daughter's ethnic background and medical issues could make her valley fever's next victim. "On their website, they do say that they want to try and give the inmates a healthy relationship with their family," Joseph said of prison officials. "This would not be healthy at all. They know that this plague's been going on for a while now. Why didn't they do anything to prevent it?"