Wayne Hunt is worried. For months, he’s been battling lingering flu-like symptoms. He is constantly short of breath. He feels weak, exhausted. He’s even coughing up blood.

Hunt knows exactly what’s ailing him: valley fever, an insidious airborne fungal disease he picked up at the Saguaro Correctional Center, an Arizona prison where he is serving a life sentence for second-degree murder.

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For a long stretch, Hunt has tried to work through the system to get a transfer back to Hawaii, where he believes he’ll get better care.

But now, still stuck in Saguaro, Hunt is exploring legal action to force his transfer.

And Hunt is not alone.

Honolulu attorney Myles Breiner is preparing to file a class-action lawsuit, on behalf of Hunt and other prisoners, seeking compensatory and punitive damages, as well as the return of all Hawaii prisoners from Saguaro.

Breiner, who has represented many Saguaro prisoners over the years, says he began working on the lawsuit last month after Civil Beat reported on the recent deaths of at least two Saguaro prisoners who had valley fever.

“I’m shocked that, other than your article, there’s been no public discourse about the wisdom of sending hundreds of Hawaii inmates to the Arizona desert, where they could be exposed to an inherently dangerous disease,” Breiner said.

Toni Schwartz, spokeswoman for the Hawaii Department of Public Safety, declined to comment on the threatened lawsuit.

“We reserve comment on pending litigation until we have been served and have had a chance to look it over with our legal representation,” Schwartz said.

A Desperate Letter, ‘A Long Time’ 

At Saguaro, Hunt has been receiving treatment — but he isn’t getting any better. Desperate, he wrote a letter to Gov. David Ige in November, begging for a transfer back to Hawaii.

Nearly three months later, Hunt got his official reply: Deborah Stampfle, acting administrator of the department’s Health Care Division, wrote him a two-page letter, reassuring him that he was receiving “excellent care” at Saguaro.

Hunt was better off staying in Arizona, where valley fever “is a fairly common condition,” Stamplfe told him.

“Many (doctors) are available in Arizona while finding a provider in Hawaii with experience in treating this infection may be challenging as it is not something that occurs in Hawaii,” Stamplfe wrote.

Besides, Stampfle added, Hunt’s doctors have been treating him with the antifungal medication Fluconazole, which should help heal “a cavity” in his lung that was causing him to cough up blood.

“You are anticipated to make a full recovery,” Stamplfe wrote. “It will, however, take a very long time.”

Saguaro Correctional Center Eloy Arizona clouds and mountain range. 6 march 2016. photograph Cory Lum/Civil beat
About 1,400 Hawaii prisoners are housed at the Saguaro Correctional Center in Eloy, Arizona, a dusty small town about 70 miles southeast of Phoenix. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

A Likely Undercount

Valley fever is an infection caused by inhaling microscopic spores of coccidioides, a fungus endemic to a swath of the desert Southwest. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Arizona had more than 5,600 reported infections in 2014, accounting for more than two-thirds of the nationwide count.

The Department of Public Safety told Civil Beat last month that only four cases of valley fever had been reported at Saguaro since the prison — owned and operated by Corrections Corporation of America — was opened just for Hawaii in 2007.

But Schwartz acknowledged last week that the department counted only the cases reported since 2014; it doesn’t have a system in place to track older cases.

That means a number of cases have likely gone uncounted — including that of Melvin Wright, a Saguaro prisoner who was diagnosed with valley fever in 2013.

As Civil Beat reported, Wright’s conditions worsened precipitously in 2014, and he was flown back to Hawaii — only to be found unresponsive in his cell at the Halawa Correctional Facility. Three days later, he died at the hospital.

According to his autopsy report, Wright suffered from a heart attack, but valley fever was determined to be among the contributing causes of his death.

Schwartz also conceded that the department might have overlooked other cases in recent years, given that most infected people present no symptoms or may experience only minor, flu-like symptoms.

“There may be others who contracted valley fever but did not exhibit symptoms or elevate to a level that would prompt further evaluation or testing,” Schwartz said.

Phoenix dust storm
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, valley fever is rampant across Arizona. More than 5,600 people were infected there in 2014, accounting for more than two-thirds of the reported cases nationwide. Flickr/Alan Stark

‘Unnecessary And Unreasonable Harm’

Despite the prevalence of valley fever, Hunt is likely the first prisoner in Arizona to file a lawsuit over the disease.

Dianne Post, the legal redress chair for the Maricopa County branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, says the issue hasn’t seen a day in court in Arizona partly because the state doesn’t have enough civil-rights attorneys willing to take on such cases.

“We just don’t seem to have a deep or wide cadre of lawyers lining up to uphold the rule of law when it comes to human rights,” said Post, who also serves as the secretary for the Arizona Justice Alliance.

Post also notes that she hasn’t heard many complaints about valley fever — either because it’s not a major issue in Arizona prisons or because most prisoners don’t recognize that they’re infected.

“Many people here are not (informed) and just think they have the flu,” Post said.

That’s a far cry from what’s been transpiring in California, where prisoners with valley fever have filed a series of lawsuits in recent years.

“In the absence of a court-ordered exclusionary policy, inmates will continue to suffer unnecessary and unreasonable harm.” — Thelton Henderson, a federal judge

In 2013, for instance, a federal class-action lawsuit was filed on behalf of more than 160 prisoners at Avenal and Pleasant Valley state prisons, alleging that the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation imposed on them “a lifelong, crippling and sometimes fatal disease in addition to their lawfully determined sentences.”

The two prisons are known to have staggering rates of valley fever: In 2011, the rate of infection at Avenal was 3,800 infections per 100,000 prisoners; the rate at Pleasant Valley was more than 6,800 per 100,000. By comparison, California’s overall rate was 12 infections per 100,000 residents.

In June 2013, a judge overseeing a separate case ordered the state to transfer nearly 2,600 “high-risk” prisoners from Avenal and Pleasant Valley, concluding that, “in the absence of a court-ordered exclusionary policy, inmates will continue to suffer unnecessary and unreasonable harm.”

A year later, the CDC went a step further and recommended that, before sending any prisoners to Avenal and Pleasant Valley, the state should conduct skin tests to identify those who had already been exposed to valley fever — and could therefore safely stay there.

In January 2015, the recommendation led to a massive, $5 million screening in which more than 36,000 prisoners were tested. The effort found that more than 3,000 prisoners had been previously exposed to valley fever.

But among those who tested negative were 1,350 Avenal prisoners and 815 Pleasant Valley prisoners, all of whom had to be moved out of the two prisons.

A Change In Policy?

Breiner said he’s helping file the lawsuit to seek similar results to what’s achieved in California. But his ultimate goal is to end Hawaii’s practice of sending its excess prisoners to Saguaro altogether.

“The purpose of our lawsuit is to bring our inmates back,” Breiner said. “Our inmates shouldn’t be in an environment where they are exposed to valley fever.”

But the state has few, if any, tenable options, given that four prisons in Hawaii are chronically overcrowded — functioning at about 140 percent of their designed capacity.

And, on a temporary basis, Saguaro will be housing even more Hawaii prisoners: In October, the state will begin renovating Halawa, and about 250 prisoners will have to be transferred to Arizona until the work is completed.

Schwartz said an “assessment is ongoing” to determine whether the Department of Public Safety should adopt a transfer policy that keeps at-risk prisoners from being housed at Saguaro.

But Schwartz declined to provide more details. “Matters under consideration are considered confidential until and unless a decision to proceed in a certain fashion is made,” she said.

Meanwhile, Saguaro prisoners are now allowed to opt to be tested for valley fever, but Schwartz said the department doesn’t track how many tests have been requested.

Along with the new testing policy, Schwartz said the department has also developed an “education initiative” in which a two-page fact-sheet is distributed to inform prisoners about valley fever.

The fact-sheet informs “what valley fever (coccidioidomycosis) is and where it is found. It also explains the possible symptoms, how it is treated and ways to prevent infection,” Schwartz said.

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