Inmates sue, saying they got Valley fever while in state prisons

Pleasant Valley state prison near Coalinga. Prisoners at the facility say in a lawsit that the state has not protected them well enough from Valley fever.
Pleasant Valley state prison near Coalinga. Prisoners at the facility say in a lawsit that the state has not protected them well enough from Valley fever. jwalker@fresnobee.com

Four inmates who contracted Valley fever while housed at prisons across the region are suing state officials including Gov. Jerry Brown, saying they knew of the fungal infection’s dangers but did nothing to protect prisoners.

The legal actions are the latest in a string of federal civil rights lawsuits filed by multiple Southern California law firms on behalf of inmates housed mainly at Avenal and Pleasant Valley state prisons who have contracted the fungal infection. Pleasant Valley is located in Coalinga. One lawsuit filed late last year has 45 plaintiffs from the two prisons. A third, filed in July 2013, seeks class-action status on behalf of African Americans, those older than 55 and others with compromised immune systems who contracted Valley fever while at either prison.

Attorneys representing some of the men, however, say in legal filings in U.S. District Court in Fresno that the problem goes far beyond those two prisons. Plaintiffs in the latest round of lawsuits come from Kern Valley State Prison near Delano, Corcoran and Wasco as well as Avenal and Pleasant Valley. They say state prison officials violated the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment in housing inmates vulnerable to Valley fever in the prisons.

“The American system of criminal justice requires that state correctional authorities carry out the exact sentence determined by the judicial process — no more and no less,” the lawsuit filed on behalf of the more than 160 Avenal and Pleasant Valley inmates, states. “Instead, Defendants knowingly imposed on plaintiffs a lifelong, crippling, and sometimes fatal disease in addition to their lawfully determined sentences.”

Minorities susceptible

A vast majority of the inmates are minorities, and some of the lawsuits name racial discrimination, as well as the civil rights allegations, among its charges. The lawsuits say studies show that blacks, Hispanics, American Indian and Asians, particularly Filipinos, are especially susceptible to contracting Valley fever.

As new lawsuits are being filed, however, some earlier Valley fever suits are facing legal struggles.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Stanley Boone last month recommended that two of the lawsuits — one of them from October 2013 that has 159 inmates from Avenal and Pleasant Valley as plaintiffs — be dismissed. The final decision on Boone’s recommendation lies with U.S. District Judge Lawrence J. O’Neill. As of now, both cases are still active.

Luis Patino, a spokesman for the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, said “the health and safety of state employees and inmates in California prisons is of the utmost importance to the state. However, CDCR does not comment on pending litigation.”

The latest lawsuits come four months after the state screened nearly 37,000 inmates for Valley fever to see which ones could safely be housed at Avenal State Prison in Kings County and Pleasant Valley State Prison. After the tests, more than 2,100 inmates were moved from the two prisons.

“CDCR has been working to mitigate Valley fever for years,” Patino said. “We have put in place numerous measures in our prisons to reduce the amount of dust, and the movement of dust, particularly into buildings. We have also moved inmates deemed at higher risk and who chose to move out of the two prisons in the Valley fever endemic zone. We have also worked with state and federal public health partners to study further methods of reducing the incidence of Valley fever in Avenal and Pleasant Valley prisons. To date, more than 2,100 inmates were moved from two prisons and mitigation efforts continue.”

Danger from disease

Jason Feldman of the Venice law firm of Feldman & Wallach, which has filed multiple lawsuits on behalf of inmates, including being one of three firms involved in the four filed last week, said the prisoner movement was a good first step, but more needs to be done.

“We applaud the transfer order, which is aimed at mitigating risk in the future, but there are scores of people who are already sick and that needs to be dealt with also,” he said.

Valley fever is an infection that develops when people breathe Coccidioides fungal spores found in soil or dust. Most people exposed to the fungus do not get sick, but some develop flu-like symptoms that last a few days or couple of weeks. Others, however, develop an infection that can spread from the lungs to the rest of the body, causing meningitis and death.

The disease has increased from 5.3 cases per 100,000 people in 1998 to 42.6 cases per 100,000 in 2011 in states where it has become endemic. California has about 31% of the cases, health officials have said.

Attorneys for the inmates say state health officials have known about the prevalence of Valley fever, especially around Coalinga and Avenal, and the disease’s risks to inmate health, for more than 50 years.

“Locating these prisons in these hyper-endemic region of the Central Valley, significantly overcrowding them, housing inmates at risk or at increased risk from Valley fever there, and failing to implement any of the remedial measures recommended to reduce inmate exposure to (the disease) has had drastic repercussions on the health and welfare of California’s inmate population,” one of the lawsuits states.

That same suit says that by 2006 Pleasant Valley State Prison “was known to be extraordinarily dangerous.”

Since 2005, Feldman said, 70 inmates have died as a result of exposure to Valley fever.

Illness called ‘punishment’

Each of the lawsuits is in various stages of litigation at U.S. District Court in Fresno. Both of Fresno’s U.S. District judges, Lawrence J. O’Neill and Anthony W. Ishii, have been assigned cases.

State prison records show some of the men are still incarcerated, but it appears all are now housed at prisons outside of the Central Valley. No records could be found for others, which likely indicates they could have been released.

Once an inmate is infected, “no compensation is provided for this additional punishment that has been unfairly added to their sentences,” some of the lawsuits say. One an inmate is released, the suits say, the state doesn’t provide health care or financial assistance to deal with “the overwhelming cost and hazards associated with Valley fever.”

Feldman said one of the problems is that inmates often come from other parts of California or the nation, so they have no immunity built up against the disease. Many of those inmates after being released “go back to their communities and become health problems to those communities.”

Medical professionals there don’t know how to handle Valley fever, and the inmates often have no insurance to pay for treatments.

“They’re already challenged enough to get jobs or income, and now they’re also strapped with this debilitating disease,” Feldman said.

Many of the lawsuits tell similar stories.

One of the latest ones filed is for Luis Negron, 36, a Hispanic man who was sent to Wasco State Prison in mid-2011. At the time, the lawsuit says, he didn’t have Valley fever. A short time later, however, he began to exhibit symptoms of the infection.

Negron “continues to suffer from the disease, he has underwent significant weight loss, lesions and red spots on his chest, has a persistent cough, night sweats, headaches, lethargy, and he experiences severe emotional distress, including depression,” his suit says.

State prison records show Negron is now housed at Ironwood State Prison in the Mojave Desert city of Blythe.

Besides Brown, former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is named in many, but not all, of the lawsuits. Also named are wardens of the various prisons and former wardens, as well as current and former heads of the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

Even with multiple lawsuits filed, more could be on the way.

Feldman said this past Wednesday alone his firm received four calls from families of inmates or former inmates. He said his firm has been in contact with 800 current or former inmates “and we believe the number to be significantly higher than that, at least twice that.”