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July 30, 2013 > Calif. inmates sue over potentially fatal fungus

Calif. inmates sue over potentially fatal fungus

By Don Thompson, Associated Press

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP), Jul 12 - California inmates who contracted a potentially fatal illness known as valley fever are suing state officials for lifetime medical care, including coverage for drugs that their attorney said can cost $2,000 a month.

The lawsuit filed in federal court in Sacramento this week seeks class-action status for black, elderly and medically at-risk inmates and former inmates at two Central Valley prisons who fell ill to the naturally occurring airborne fungus since July 2009.

Corrections officials knew those groups were particularly vulnerable - historically - to the fungus that originates in the region's soil but did not properly act to protect them, attorney Ian Wallach of Venice said Friday. That failure violated the inmates' constitutional rights, according to the lawsuit.

About half the infections produce no symptoms, while most of the rest can bring mild to severe flu-like symptoms. In a few cases, however, the infection can spread from the lungs to the brain, bones, skin or eyes, causing blindness, skin abscesses, lung failure and occasionally death.

Currently, state policy is to release severely infected parolees with a 30-day supply of medication, Wallach said. After that, they're on their own to pay for drugs that can cost $2,000 a month.

``Without the medicine, they will die. With the medicine, their quality of life is still unbearable,'' Wallach said, calling it ``a life sentence that no judge had ordered.''

Corrections department spokesman Jeffrey Callison declined comment on the lawsuit, but said the state is complying with a recent federal court order to move about 2,600 of the 8,100 inmates housed at Avenal and Pleasant Valley state prisons, both located about 175 miles southeast of San Francisco.

The move comes as the state is also transferring 1,700 seriously sick and mentally ill inmates into a nearly $840 million medical complex in Stockton, and while it fights a separate court order requiring the state to free nearly 10,000 inmates by year's end to ease crowding and improve conditions.

The class of inmates named in the lawsuit varies from the order issued last month by U.S. District Judge Thelton Henderson of San Francisco. He instructed the state to move most black, Filipino and medically at-risk inmates from the two prisons, but he did not include older inmates.

Henderson's order is designed to protect vulnerable inmates who do not have the illness, while the damages lawsuit is intended to help those who are ill.

Wallach said his law firm has been contacted by more than 500 sick inmates and former inmates since it won a $425,000 settlement last year for a former inmate who became ill with valley fever at the federal Taft Correctional Institution in Kern County.

The lead plaintiff, Arthur D. Jackson, is a 40-year-old black man currently serving a life sentence in Folsom State Prison. The suit says he contracted valley fever at Pleasant Valley State Prison last year, leading to fatigue, stomach pain, severe dry and bleeding skin, trouble breathing, chest pain, headaches, pneumonia and blurred vision. He still has severe headaches and partial blindness to his left eye despite taking daily medication.

The lawsuit lists another six prisoners and former inmates by name, all of whom fit into the categories named in the suit.

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