Incarcerated Women in LA County Jails Face Threat of Valley Fever Illness
Diana Zuniga of Californians United for a Responsible Budget says her coalition is pressing officials to address public safety by providing communities with necessary social services
EDDIE CONWAY: I’m Eddie Conway. Thank you for joining me for this special edition of Rattling the Bars. A month or so ago, I talked to people in California when there was this massive spending boom, $2 billion, to create prisons and jails in LA and so on. And so, I want to follow up on that to see what happened and so here with me to give me an update is Diana Zuniga and she is the state-wide organizer for Californians United for a Responsible Budget. Thanks for joining me, Diana.
DIANA ZUNIGA: Yes. Thanks for having me.
EDDIE CONWAY: Could you give me an update on what’s happening since the last time we talked, with the jail and the prison boom out there in California?
DIANA ZUNIGA: So, the last time we talked was on October 11th, and the LA No More Jails coalition had been successful in getting the Los Angeles board of supervisors to delay the vote on the jail plan in LA County, the $2.3 billion jail plan in Los Angeles County. The coalition was successful in getting them to delay the vote based on environmental concerns. There were several environmental concerns associated with one of the construction pieces, which was the women’s jail that was proposed to be built in Lancaster, which is 70 miles away from Los Angeles City. We were able to get the board to delay it based on issues of valley fever that have increased in Antelope Valley, which is where the jail would be located, and also issues of water. So, there were several environmental issues that the board was interested in kind of revisiting and understanding more. And the board took about two weeks to look at these issues and two weeks later, on October 25th, the LA Board of Supervisors came back together to basically approve two pieces of the $2.3 billion jail plan. One, was they approved the environmental impact report, the final one for the women’s jail in Lancaster. And the second thing they did was they placed money aside to begin conceptionally thinking about how they would want to build the second jail in Los Angeles County, which would replace Men’s Central Jail and would be focused on basically providing mental health services for people that are incarcerated. So, they made the decision to move forward on this $2.3 billion jail plan on October 25th, despite environmental concerns and despite kind of human rights and economic concerns that the coalition in Los Angeles has had for several years.
EDDIE CONWAY: Okay, now just step back for a minute. This disease, the area in which they have been trying to build a women’s jail, it had a disease that’s partly airborne. I mean, is that still a threat in that particular area? I’m not clear why the environmental board ignored that.
DIANA ZUNIGA: Yeah. So valley fever is still a huge issue in Antelope Valley. It’s continuously increased every year and we actually just heard CURB, which is a coalition I work for, has a national advisory board member that is serving time in the Lancaster prison, which is basically right next to where the women’s jail is being proposed to be built. And he recently told us, in the last two weeks, that two people in the Lancaster prison have contracted valley fever. Like you were saying, valley fever is an airborne disease and, basically, it exists in spores within dirt in desert areas. And if the dirt is kind of disrupted, if it starts moving through the air, those spores could be inhaled by people and then most people, some people, contract valley fever from those spores if they have the valley fever fungus inside of them. So, it’s a pretty huge issue that a lot of people in the Antelope Valley are experiencing, folks that are incarcerated and folks that aren’t incarcerated. And many desert areas have not received the adequate kind of public health responses that you would think would be shared with these communities that are being hit hard with this airborne disease called valley fever.
EDDIE CONWAY: Well, what’s the next step, then? I understand a thousand women will be put in that particular prison if it’s allowed to be built. What’s the next step to protect them from such a situation?
DIANA ZUNIGA: It’s about 1,600 women that will be placed in this facility and they basically have some forms of ways that they will mitigate the issue of valley fever. The main thing that they’re proposing is that they will hose the dirt with water to decrease the likelihood that the dirt will rise up and that spores will be omitted[sic] for people to be able to breathe. We don’t think that that’s an adequate response or mitigation to the issue, so we’re still trying to push the board and push the Department of Public Health and the Sheriff’s Department to develop concrete ways that women inside of this facility will be protected from valley fever. There’s still a lot of conversations around what that is actually going to look like. I think the other thing that we’re saying is that we need to get people out. We need to get folks adequate services inside of their communities, especially when we hear Sheriff McDonnell who’s our head Sheriff in Los Angeles County say that there’s 80% of the people in LA County jails have substance use issues. And another 25% of them have mental health issues. So what we’re also saying is why are we, you know, housing them in a jail facility instead of actually providing treatment and services in their communities. And that’s our real focus right now. How do we keep people safe that might be in this new facility but, at the same time, how do we reduce populations and make sure that services are adequately provided in their own communities that they’re a part of, especially when they’re suffering so many things around substance use and mental health needs.
EDDIE CONWAY: Is the results of this recent election with Trump winning, is that going to have any impact on the prison boom in California and the ability of the citizens on the ground to resist it?
DIANA ZUNIGA: Yeah. I mean, I think it’s going to have a huge impact. And I think, you know, CURB, its member organizations have been having a lot of discussions around how we collectively generate community power within groups that are doing kind of criminal justice reform work and folks that are doing, you know, immigrant justice work. So, I think we’ve already been in conversations around how we can merge efforts and really push back on capacity being built in our counties or throughout the State, that will be used to incarcerate documented and undocumented folks. And in the case of undocumented folks, will they be used to house them and then deport them to their home country? So, we have been in conversations about that and have been trying to figure out how to make sure that the policies that we’re moving forward and the ways that we’re pushing back against jail construction is really collectively thinking about the stories of all of the folks that are impacted by policing and incarceration in our communities. Especially in LA County where we have a large amount of folks that are within the immigrant population. So that is something that we’re thinking about and just trying to figure out how that’s going to impact our collective work pushing back against this massive jail plan, given all of this pressure that might come from the federal government for our county and for the State to continue incarcerating people and contribute to the deportation processes of people, as well.
EDDIE CONWAY: Uh huh. Well, okay, is there anything you want to share with us? Because I want you to come back later on and give us another update so we can continue to follow this. But do you have anything you would like to share now before we leave?
DIANA ZUNIGA: Yeah. I mean, I think the coalition that I’m a part of LA No More Jails and CURB, the coalition I work for, we’re really going to continue pushing back against this $2.3 billion jail plan that will likely cost our county $3.7 billion due to the interest that will be accrued in having to construct these facilities. I think we’re also thinking about how we can creatively re-imagine what funding could be used for in our communities instead or how we can use funding instead of it going to incarceration. So, I would love to kind of update you on what that looks like, but we have several different alternative budget proposals for Los Angeles County so that we can start creating a more adequate infrastructure of care, holistic care, mental health services, housing support and substance use services in our communities so that folks don’t have to rely on going to jail to have to receive any of those services. And I think in LA County, and in several other counties throughout the State, a lot of sheriffs are promoting their jails as the place that will be safer and more humane and be better for communities, that a new jail is needed. And we are really trying to debunk what sheriffs are saying and actually re-imagine what we need in our communities instead. So, that’s going to be another part of our long-term fight and we can definitely update you all on the progress of that. And, in the coming months, I also encourage people to look at our Million Dollar Hoods project. If you go to milliondollarhoods.org, you can see that just per neighborhood in Los Angeles County how much is actually being wasted on arresting and incarcerating people. And there are several neighborhoods that are million dollar hoods and those are the direct neighborhoods that we know need additional resources and that’s what we’re going to be fighting for.
EDDIE CONWAY: Okay. All right, well, keep us updated and stay in touch and thank you for joining me.
DIANA ZUNIGA: Of course. Thank you.
EDDIE CONWAY: Okay and thank you for joining Rattling the Bars.
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