Glenn Towery had already served 11 years for stealing a car at gunpoint when he was transferred to Kern Valley State Prison in 2009. Riding up I-5 to the San Joaquin Valley, 150 miles north of his native Los Angeles, he probably smelled the sulfuric odor of industrial cow lots. But once he arrived, he would inhale something worse: a fungus that might kill him.
Towery complained of flu-like symptoms for a year before he was diagnosed. He’d wake coated in sweat. “It feels like something heavy is on my chest,” he told one nurse. Eventually, doctors found that he had an enlarged heart. A test revealed he had valley fever.
For the majority of people, valley fever, a disease brought on by breathing in fungus spores native to the desert dust of the southwestern United States, is harmless. But in 40 percent of the population, the disease can cause sore throats and muscle aches, and if the infection spreads, skin ulcers, bone legions, even inflammation of the heart or brain. Its severity varies by race: Black patients are 14 times more likely than white patients to suffer complications; Filipinos are 175 times more likely.
After being released on parole in 2013 with a weakened immune system and a lifetime prescription for an anti-fungal drug, Towery, who is black, decided to sue the state. His lawyer, Aashish Desai, charged California officials with a hate crime, arguing that because valley fever disproportionately affects black patients, officials deliberately put Towery’s life at risk by transferring him to the county with the worst infection rate. While Desai’s use of hate-crime legislation is unique, two other lawsuits have been filed by California prisoners who contracted valley fever while incarcerated. In 2015, a federally ordered screening found that 8 percent of California prisoners had the disease. The state’s overall infection rate at the time was less than 1 percent.