The federal receiver in charge of health care in California’s prisons is ordering the state to remove inmates from two Central Valley prisons who are especially at risk of contracting the fungal disease known as valley fever. The move affects about 40 percent of the inmate population at Avenal and Pleasant Valley State Prisons.
Those affected include African Americans, Filipinos, inmates who are HIV positive, have compromised immune systems, or are pregnant or elderly.
Joyce Hayhoe is with the department of California Correctional Health Care Services. She says valley fever has been a growing problem in the prison system.
"Since 2006, we've had 40 deaths statewide where valley fever was either the primary or the secondary cause of death, so it's more than just one or two cases here or there," Hayhoe said.
She said the state prison system had already taken some steps to reduce the incidence of valley fever. They were excluding inmates considered most vulnerable to the disease from prisons in endemic regions, were educating prisoners about valley fever symptoms, and had cancelled planned construction at Pleasant Valley State Prison. But she says those efforts were not enough.
"It was hoped that some of those mitigation efforts would help the incidence of cocci, or valley fever, from increasing, but in data that we have since received, those efforts have really proven to be ineffective, so that was the reason for needing to take the additional step of putting out the directive today."
In an e-mail, Jeffrey Callison, press secretary for the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, said the implications of the receiver’s directive are "considerable," especially since it is effective immediately. It's unclear exactly how the department will comply with the directive.
Still, Hayhoe said the directive is feasible. "There are 31 other state prisons statewide, so our directive does not tell the department where to move them, that's entirely up to the department,” she said. “The department is pretty good at moving prisoners when it's necessary."
Since 2007, a federal receiver has been in charge of health care in the state's prisons, after a federal court found inmate conditions unconstitutional.
Valley fever is an airborne fungal disease that is common throughout the arid southwest, and in the San Joaquin Valley. The issue of valley fever in state prisons came to light in part through a series of special reports called "Just One Breath" from the Reporting On Health Collaborative. Valley Public Radio is a member of the project.
The prisoner relocation directive could pose additional problems in the state's effort to reduce its prison population. The governor has until Thursday to present a new plan to a federal panel on prison overcrowding.
Valley Public Radio's Rebecca Plevin also contributed to this report.-