Condemned to valley fever

July 17, 2013

Valley fever, officially known as coccidioidomycosis, is caused by a fungus that lives in the soil in the southwestern United States. Though anyone can get valley fever, it's most commonly suffered by older adults, especially those over 60; African Americans; Asians; women in their third trimester of pregnancy; and people with weak immune systems.

People contract valley fever by inhaling the fungal spores when they become airborne, and it cannot be passed from person to person. The most common symptoms of valley fever include mild to severe flu-like symptoms that can linger for weeks or months. However, the infection can spread from the lungs to other parts of the body and cause symptoms such as skin abscesses, blindness and even death.

Researchers estimate that each year more than 150,000 people nationwide contract valley fever, though only 20,000 or so cases are properly diagnosed.

In this article, California death row prisoner Donald Ray Young speaks out about the urgent crisis facing 3,200 at-risk prisoners at two California state prisons--Pleasant Valley and Avenal. Pleasant Valley has a valley fever infection rate 400 times higher than the rest of the county, and Avenal has an infection rate nearly 10 times higher than the county with the highest rate in California, according to a recent report.

Young was wrongly convicted and sentenced to San Quentin's death row in 2006. He is a paralegal with an associate degree in sociology and is continuing his education in pursuit of a law degree to aid in winning his exoneration. Mail can be addressed to: Donald Ray Young, E-78474 East Block, San Quentin State Prison, San Quentin, CA 94974.


Valley fever, combined with the lack of constitutionally adequate medical care, has resulted in 62 known deaths since 2006 within the California prison-industrial complex.

Gov. Jerry Brown recently announced that California state prisoners have the finest health care system in the world, negating the need for federal oversight. But at least two Central Valley prisons--Avenal and Pleasant Valley--have become death traps on Jerry Brown's watch.

J. Clark Kelso, the federal medical receiver appointed by U.S. District Judge Thelton Henderson to oversee the California state prison health care system, recently ordered Brown and the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) to immediately transfer 3,300 prisoners at high risk of infection or death from valley fever out of these two prisons.

Brown rejected this April 29 directive to save lives and instead opted to play politics with morbid consequences. This matter was heard in the U.S. District Court on June 17 before Judge Henderson. On June 24, gthe judge ordered Brown and CDCR to remove all high-risk prisoners from Avenal and Pleasant Valley state prisons. They have 90 days to complete the court ordered transfers.

Pleasant Valley State Prison in California

"Defendants [Brown and CDCR] have therefore clearly demonstrated their unwillingness to respond adequately to the heath care needs of California's inmate population, which is particularly ironic given Defendants' insistence in other court filings that they are now providing a constitutional level of care," Henderson stated.

More than 80 percent of the prisoners who have died due to valley fever have been African American. Kelso reported that African American prisoners in Avenal and Pleasant Valley State Prisons have a 90 percent risk of contracting valley fever and prisoners older than 55 have a 60 percent risk.

According to Joyce Hayhoe, a spokesperson for the federal receiver, CDCR has known that African American prisoners have the highest risk of contracting and dying from valley fever. California prisoners are paying the ultimate penalty for being African American and over 55. Within the walls of CDCR, valley fever minus health care plus racism and ageism equals death.

BORN AND raised in the Central San Joaquin Valley, I played in this fungus-tainted dust bowl. I attended West Hills College in the town of Coalinga, Calif., a decade before Pleasant Valley Prison was erected within its borders. I know this place of diseased soil, and I understand Jerry Brown's prison-industrial complex from the inside out.

The receiver was put in place to stop preventable deaths caused by the lack of heath care. Brown and CDCR do not appear to believe prisoners deserve health care, or any kind of care.

CDCR's severe overcrowding resulted in constitutionally inadequate medical and mental health care. On May 23, 201l, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the ruling by a three-judge panel requiring CDCR within two years to reduce its population to 137.5 percent of capacity. At the time, CDCR was at 180 percent of design capacity.

"We are compelled to enforce the federal Constitution and to enforce the constitutional rights of all persons, including prisoners," explained the three-judge panel comprised of Thelton Henderson, Lawrence Karlton and Stephen Reinhardt of the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Schools are quietly closing up and down the state, and teachers receiving pink slips. Why so much noise at the idea of shutting down a dangerously poisonous prison? Well, because the Central Valley is addicted to the prison economy. Central Valley communities fought hard to have prisons implanted in their backyard, and they are extremely reluctant to release the cash cow.

Even when the prisoners are dying.

Kings County Supervisor Joe Neves says that "the impact on Avenal will be substantial"--not due to the loss of life, but because the city of Avenal sells water to the prison. Dr. John Galgiani, professor of medicine at the University of Arizona and founder of its valley fever research center, has described the situation as a "public health emergency" and called for Avenal and Peasant Valley State Prisons to be "shut down."

Kelso views the response by Brown and CDCR to valley fever as "anemic," while Donald Spector, director of the Prison Law Office and lead attorney in the prison overcrowding lawsuit Plata v. Brown, describes this as "a toxic environment which causes death."

Condemned to valley fever, another death sentence.

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