SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – Dozens of California inmates who said they were subjected to cruel and unusual punishment after contracting a potentially deadly disease while imprisoned in Central Valley facilities saw their lawsuits tossed by the Ninth Circuit on Friday.
The three-judge panel ruled unanimously that prison officials named by the prisoners in their lawsuits are entitled to qualified immunity. Many of the named defendants weren’t even responsible for placement of inmates, the panel found.
“We hold that several of the defendants cannot be sued at all because they were not personally involved in any alleged violations,” U.S. Circuit Judge Andrew Kleinfeld wrote for the majority.
The appeal involved four lawsuits brought by different groups of prisoners who had contracted Valley Fever while in prison. Some of the plaintiffs were the families of inmates who died of the disease.
Ian Wallach, attorney for several of the defendants, decried the decision as “awful.”
“There were hundreds of inmates affected with a serious form of this disease and now they are left without any form of remedy,” Wallach said in a telephone interview.
The Central Valley has long been a hotbed of Valley Fever, which stems from fungal spores embedded in the region’s soil. When the soil is kicked up, as it often is by the area’s famed agriculture, people can inhale the spores.
About half of those who inhale the spores remain symptom-free, but others can develop serious disorders as a result of the infection including rash, fatigue, fever, cough, headaches and pain. A small, but statistically significant portion of exposed individuals can develop serious infections of the bones, brain or lungs resulting in organ failure and even death. Studies have shown males and people of African descent are particularly susceptible to the more serious forms of Valley Fever.
“The families of 40 clients who died and hundreds of others who have the most serious form of the disease are left to fend for themselves,” Wallach said.
California has recognized the problem of Valley Fever in its prison system and, beginning in 2007, made accommodations to move certain vulnerable members of the population out of Central Valley penitentiaries. These include pregnant women, those with HIV, and others with chronic lung problems.
But Wallach said it wasn’t enough and the state should have moved quicker to move black inmates to other prisons where the risk of infection was significantly lower.
“It’s cruel and unusual punishment to hold people in a place where they are 14 times more likely to contract a fatal illness,” he said.
A federal monitor assigned to oversee the health conditions of the inmate population eventually ordered state officials to move black and Filipino inmates out of the Avenal and Pleasant Valley state prisons.
But Wallach said the order came too late and, in many cases, black inmates were left to languish in prisons susceptible to the disease as recently as 2013.
Judge Kleinfeld said the federal government’s intercession further bolsters the state officials’ qualified immunity defense.
“It is especially significant that state officials could have reasonably believed that they were not violating the inmates’ Eighth Amendment rights because the officials reported to the federal receiver,” he wrote.
The judge also said that because so many people choose to live and work in the Central Valley despite the presence of Valley Fever, it is difficult to say imprisoning inmates in the area could amount to cruel and unusual punishment.
Finally, the court acknowledged that Valley Fever does affect black men disproportionately, but said it is difficult to argue state officials violated the rights of black inmates by treating them the same as white ones.
“It would not have been clear to a reasonable person, acting on the officials’ information and motivated by their purposes, that the Equal Protection Clause required excluding African American inmates from these prisons based on race,” Kleinfeld wrote
The judges said they recognized the legitimacy of the inmates’ plight and acknowledged the seriousness of Valley Fever, but said they could not conclude the defendants “had to segregate prisoners by race or do more than the federal receiver told them to do.”
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