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Monday, May 06 2013 07:18 PM

State balks at transferring inmates due to valley fever

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    By Casey Christie / The Californian

    Terry Oubsuntia, microbiology specialist, labels valley fever test trays in a laboratory at the Kern County Public Health Services Department in this file photo.

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BY JUDY LIN AND DON THOMPSON The Associated Press

SACRAMENTO -- It is premature to move more than 3,000 inmates out of two state prisons until more is known about an airborne fungus that is being blamed for nearly three-dozen inmate deaths and hundreds of hospitalizations, Gov. Jerry Brown's administration said in a court filing Monday night.

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the affiliated National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health agreed last week to study problems with valley fever at Avenal and Pleasant Valley state prisons.

U.S. District Judge Thelton Henderson of San Francisco should wait for the centers' recommendations before enforcing an order last week by the federal official who controls prison medical care, the administration said.

J. Clark Kelso, the federal receiver, says more black, Filipino and medically at-risk inmates have contracted the illness, leading to his order that the state exclude them from the prisons.

That would mean moving about 40 percent of the 8,200 inmates at the two prisons just as the state faces a federal court order to reduce prison crowding statewide to improve conditions for sick and mentally ill inmates.

Henderson has scheduled a June 17 hearing to hear arguments on the issue.

Brown has been aggressively fighting the crowding order, which requires the state to reduce its prison population by another 9,000 inmates by year's end. He defended his approach Monday in his first public comments since his administration filed its inmate-reduction plan last week.

The governor said California has spent billions on prison construction and hiring medical staff in recent years.

"We have an incredible transformation, and for some reason people say, 'Gee, nothing happened,'" Brown said.

The state is preparing to move about 600 medically high-risk inmates out of the two prisons by August, but the complexity of swapping thousands of vulnerable inmates with other inmates who are less susceptible to valley fever makes it difficult to comply with Kelso's larger order, the state argued. It also says Kelso's order is confusing about which inmates could stay and which would have to go.

Ordering the inmates out also is premature until officials can learn whether other steps taken by the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation are effective in limiting the exposure of all inmates and staff to the dust that carries the disease, the state said.

The department is trying to control dust during construction, giving surgical masks to inmates and employees who ask for them, and providing education materials to employees and inmates. The corrections department also is installing air filters and is considering ways to cover up dusty areas and screen out more dust from entering prison buildings.

Don Specter, director of the nonprofit Prison Law Office that represents inmates in the case, said the state has known about the problem since 2006 without taking appropriate steps.

But corrections department spokeswoman Deborah Hoffman said in a statement that the state "has taken numerous steps" to fight the problem since then.

The dispute is just the latest battle between the courts and the governor.

Brown has pledged to appeal the population reduction order to the U.S. Supreme Court. But its outcome is far from certain. In May 2011, the high court sided with the federal judges' decision to reduce the prison population.

Brown said he will comply with the high court's decision even if that means cutting other programs to increase prison spending. The state used to spend about $7,000 per inmate on annual health care but now spends about $15,000 per inmate.

"If the Supreme Court says, 'No, you have to spend $20,000 a prisoner,' well, that's what we'll do," he said. "We'll cut whatever we have to cut and we'll just spend more and more money. But I believe that to go from $7,000 to $15,000 to get to all the things we've done should be looked at fairly and honestly."

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