VANGUARD INCARCERATED PRESS: Breathe at Your Own Risk

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By Hollie Garret

I sat in my cell alone at the edge of my bunk, sitting and shivering at the same time. My entire body ached and my head was pounding. Nose runny, I continued to sniffle, and when I would breathe deeply I felt a flutter in my heart. The aching in my stomach and joints would not go away. What was wrong with me? It must have been the flu; I reasoned to myself. I’d never felt anything like this before, and I had nothing to compare it to. I should have known this was something much more sinister.

After getting out of the shower later that day, I sat on a bench in the dayroom. Hunched over from the pain, I took my time getting the rest of my clothes on. My boy G sat down next to me seeing that I was in bad shape. “What’s wrong with you?” G asked me. I explained to G what I was going through, and he said I should go to medical because what I was describing sounded like Valley Fever. To make sure I was seen quicker, G suggested I complain of chest pains. Sure enough, later that day I was in the CTC central medical getting X-rays of my chest. The doctor told me plainly that I had Valley Fever. Looking at the X-ray of my chest, it looked like my lungs were full of smoke. This was the fungus that was attacking my body.

I had heard a lot about Valley Fever when I arrived at Pleasant Valley State in 2012. The medical name is coccidioidomycosis, or cocci. It is a fungus that’s predominantly found in the soil of the California Central Valley. Most people infected with Valley Fever have no symptoms and most others only have flu-like symptoms that go away without treatment. Then there are those who suffer skin abscesses, blindness, brain infections, loss of mobility, and death. Valley fever is also incurable. For most, it remains dormant for all or most of their lives. For a small minority, there is irreversible damage and a lifetime of medicating. Those considered as high risk for Valley Fever are the terminally ill (HIV, hepatitis, cancer, etc.) and those of African descent and Filipino. A racist disease?

The so called naturally occuring airborne fungus has caused illness within prisons in the California Central Valley since 2009. This was around the time that construction of the Taft Correctional Institution across the road from Pleasant Valley State Prison began. It was rumored among the Pleasant Valley State Prison population that the disturbance of the soil during construction of Taft spread the cocci spores in the area. Most of these cases of infection and death have been in Pleasant Valley and Avenal State Prisons, where more than three dozen incarcerated people have died from the disease since 2009. Other cases have also occurred in Kern Valley and Corcoran State Prison. In May 2013, the CDC began investigating the deaths of more than three dozen incarcerated people.

Unfortunately for me, when I arrived at Pleasant Valley State Prison in 2012, this was the tail end of the state sanctioned infections of this airborne fungus on its prison population. When I found out about the danger I was in, I attempted to get a transfer through my counselor on two separate occasions. My request was denied. Instead, I was sold the idea that Pleasant Valley was the best place to be. This fantasy was peddled to me from the first day I arrived in Pleasant Valley. As we were escorted by correctional officers from Receiving and Release to the yard where we were to be housed, I remember the exact words because I had never heard such a sales pitch before. “We have everything here,” said the officer. “Phones, drugs, gambling, and transgenders. But if you get into debt, you better handle your business because it’s no rolling up off this yard. If you’ve got a problem with someone, don’t fight in the buildings. Take it to the yard.” To roll up, as he put it, means to get yourself removed off the yard and relocated by telling on someone, telling the officers your life is in danger, or both.

What I would come to find out is that everything the officer said was true, including not being able to get out of this prison. The only way to get out of Pleasant Valley was through violence on another inmate or officer. The violence had to result in bloodshed through the use of a weapon. In this prison, I saw violence every day, which was usually due to the drug business. Fights on the yard were allowed to play out for however long it took yard officers to calmly walk to the incident. If the combatants stopped fighting before the officers got there, they were booed off the yard. Stabbing and slicing were a regular occurrence, and oftentimes the victim did not see it coming as they were just a means to get out of Pleasant Valley. If someone did try to get off the yard by snitching or claiming their lives were in danger, they were sent back to the yard to face the consequences. Looking back on it now, I believe this system was put in place to keep those, who would flee the threat to their health buried within the soil of the Central Valley, confined to Pleasant Valley State Prison.

Once I was diagnosed with Valley Fever, I began taking antifungal medication. Within a month, I lost twenty pounds due to the infection. The fungus spread throughout my lungs, so I found myself easily winded. The medication may have eaten up the fungus, but it came with its own set of side effects. The medication was causing my hair to fall out and led to high blood pressure. It also made me have to urinate often and urgently. Once I became sick, I truly saw how serious Valley Fever was, not just for myself but for everyone else around me, including the correctional officers. Almost everyone I spoke to had Valley Fever. Those most affected were the Black population. It was a Black correctional officer who told me while on a medical visit that he had been infected as well, and the administration knew what they were doing by sending us all to this prison to face this assault on our health.

It was in 2013 when it came to a head. Around the same time that the CDC started their investigation, the World News began reporting the story as well. In April 2013, U.S. District Judge Thelton Henderson ordered the transfer of 2,000 inmates from Pleasant Valley and Avenal State Prison. The inmate population to be transferred was specified to all Black and Filipino inmates. If you were among those two groups and wanted to remain in those prisons you were required to sign a waiver.

Around the same time of Judge Henderson’s order, my family had been emailing my counselor about their concern for my health and a transfer out of the institution. My counselor actually called me into his office to tell me that since I was already infected with Valley Fever I could not catch it again, so I would not be leaving. Here was a CDCR custody officer talking to me about my private medical condition and giving me medical advice. After confronting this person about his inadequacy to give medical advice, he said it would be up to the doctor to put me up for transfer.

It was on the day that those of us required to be transferred were being interviewed by their counselors that I was called to medical. The doctor said the same thing the counselor told me: I already have Valley Fever so there was no reason to be transferred. There was also a correctional officer in the room, which was highly unusual for a doctor’s visit. Despite the intimidation tactic, I rebutted the doctor telling him I had literature that said a person can acquire Valley Fever more than once. After my rebuttal, the doctor abandoned his position and told me it was the counselor who was trying to keep me there, and I may need to appeal it. They were both pointing fingers at each other to avoid taking responsibility. I cared less about who was responsible and more about why they were so intent on holding me in this prison.

The medical department in PLeasant Valley was compliant in the destruction of the bodies of all those affected by Valley Fever. It is well known that most people infected with Valley Fever get over their symptoms without any medical treatment. This is what the medical staff at Pleasant Valley was counting on. When people would go to medical with mild Valley Fever symptoms, staff would prescribe them some cold medicine and send them on their way. This helped them avoid testing for Valley Fever unless absolutely necessary and reduce the number of documented infections in the facilities. This strategy cost people their health and some their lives.  I saw this play out numerous times. Each time the victim would return from medical only for their condition to worsen. This is why G suggested I complain of chest pains, so that my symptoms would not be minimized and my health allowed to deteriorate anymore that it already had.

Despite the intention of the CDCR and medical staff to hold my body in Pleasant Valley, I transferred in September 2012. The transfer did not cure the fungus. Valley fever will always be a threat to my health. I was able to stop taking the antifungal medication in 2014 and have not had any recurring symptoms since then. My blood is checked every 3 to 6 months to see if the fungus is remaining dormant or if the infection is in regression. Now CDCR does test to see if Black and Filipino inmates are susceptible to or already have had Valley Fever. I believe this is more so done to medically clear these people to be housed at Pleasant Valley or Avenal State prisons and less about protecting them. Either way, this policy is much too little and too late for me and the many other victims.

While there are the lazy thinkers who will reason that if we wouldn’t have committed the crimes that led to our incarceration, we would not have gotten Valley Fever in the first place. The sentence placed on me did not include the infection of a deadly virus. The CDCR administration failed to protect thousands of people placed in their custody. People have died due to the warehousing of incarcerated people, and no one else has paid a consequence but the victims.

About The Author

Disclaimer: the views expressed by guest writers are strictly those of the author and may not reflect the views of the Vanguard, its editor, or its editorial board.

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