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Just One Breath: Court Ruling Puts Squeeze on California’s Overcrowded Prisons

Just One Breath: Court Ruling Puts Squeeze on California’s Overcrowded Prisons

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Thousands of inmates in California may just have received a get-out-of-jail free card.

A federal court ruled last week that the state had to move prison inmates who are susceptible to valley fever – blacks, Filipinos and prisoners with diabetes and HIV – out of two prisons in California’s central valley.

But where will they go?

The state already is reeling from 2011 U.S. Supreme Court ruling forcing it to reduce its prison population by more than 30,000. Last Thursday was the original deadline to make that happen.

The state, like many states, saw a huge increase in the number of prisoners starting in the 1980s, largely driven by drug-related incarcerations. By 1990, there were 97,000 prisoners in California institutions, according to the U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Statistics. Adding in county jails and other jurisdictions, that meant that about 2.5% of the adult male population was incarcerated in 1990, one of the highest percentages in the country.

By 2011, the number of prisoners had grown to 150,000.

The growth was accompanied by the construction of several new prisons, including two between Fresno and Bakersfield. Avenal State Prison opened in 1987, and Pleasant Valley State Prison in Coalinga opened in 1994. But the state still was not able to keep up with the growth.

This is partly why prisoners from Los Angeles, San Francisco, and other coastal areas are trucked to the San Joaquin Valley, to Avenal and Pleasant Valley. Those prisons filled up quickly. As of May 2013, Avenal housed 4,538 prisoners, and Pleasant Valley had 6,429.

Valley fever experts say that people who have not spent a lot of time in areas where the fungus that causes valley fever is common don’t have any built-up immunity to the disease. It’s why some people in Bakersfield are walking around with fungal spores in their system but no symptoms while inmates who are new to the area contract the disease within a few months.  

Perhaps inevitably, prisoners throughout the California prison system started to claim that the crowding conditions were inhumane, and they filed lawsuits that hinged on the quality of medical care in the prisons.

Tim Stelloh wrote an in-depth piece for The Nation this month that describes the overcrowding problem in detail:

By 2006, the California prison system had reached a crisis point: built to house 80,000 inmates, it held more than twice that number. “It was like the USSR,” says Jim Mayer, executive director of California Forward, a nonpartisan government reform group. “It was going to implode on itself.” A few years later, a three-judge panel handed down a dramatic ruling in response to two federal class-action lawsuits filed by inmates: the first, from 1990, claimed that mentally ill prisoners did not have access to minimal care; the second, filed eleven years later, described similar conditions for regular medical treatment. The panel found that inmates had been subject to cruel and unusual punishment, in violation of the Eighth Amendment. The judges ordered California to shrink its prison population by more than 30,000 inmates. The state appealed, but on May 23, 2011, the US Supreme Court upheld the order in a landmark ruling, Brown v. Plata. By June 27, 2013, the Court ruled, California’s prisons would have to look very different.

The prisoners in Avenal and Pleasant Valley not only claim that they don’t receive the care they need. They are claiming that by putting them in a prison in an area where the dust and air are rife with fungal spores, the state – and the federal government, too – has given them a life-long sentence to ill health and, in some cases, an early death.

The deadline for the Supreme Court ordered prison realignment has been moved to December, but this latest ruling by the U.S. District Court about valley fever puts the state in an even worse position. Can state officials in good conscience move some prisoners out and then move new prisoners right back in? The court’s ruling did, essentially, put a line around certain populations, but the truth is that everyone in Avenal and Pleasant Valley is at higher risk for contracting the disease than in the surrounding communities. As Rebecca Plevin wrote for the Reporting on Health Collaborative:

The California prison system estimates about 200 inmates are hospitalized every year due to valley fever. Most of them are diagnosed with the disease while serving sentences in eight institutions in the San Joaquin Valley, where the airborne fungus that causes valley fever is rampant. That doesn’t include federal inmates at prisons like Taft, which was described in one lawsuit as a “petri dish for valley fever.”

A study by the state prison health system found that the rate of valley fever in Pleasant Valley State Prison in Coalinga was 600 times the rate found outside the prison walls in Fresno County.

When you add up all the time state inmates spend in the hospital for valley fever, it amounts to an average of 5,000 days, or about 25 days for every inmate. The gruesome details of inmates’ experiences with the fungal disease, and the disease’s long-term impact on their lives, remain largely hidden from the public’s view.

No longer. We’re all going to be hearing a lot more about valley fever’s impact on prisoners and on the state prison system as California tries to find a way out of this dilemma.

Image by vxla via Flickr


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