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Inhaling the spores of the fungus that causes valley fever can cause lung and other problems, and even lead to death.

Lawyers representing inmates at Pleasant Valley State Prison in Fresno County and Avenal State Prison in Kings County filed a class action lawsuit in U.S. District Court Tuesday.

The suit is on behalf of black, elderly, and immune-compromised inmates who acquired valley fever since July 2009, while serving time at the two institutions.

The complaint alleges that state and prison officials knew these groups were at high risk of contracting the serious, potentially fatal form of the disease, but failed to take adequate steps to protect them.

The suit contends that officials violated these inmates' constitutional protections against cruel and unusual punishment, equal protection and disparate treatment.

Jason Feldman is one of the lawyers who filed the suit. He says the complaint seeks compensation for inmates sickened by valley fever, and lifelong access to medical care after they're released from prison.

He says inmates were convicted of a crime but, "they didn't buy in for a chronic illness that will never go away, that could kill them, and greatly affects their quality of life."

A spokesman at the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation said Thursday that his agency had no comment on the lawsuit.

This isn't the first time the courts will be considering the impact of valley fever on area inmates.

Last summer, the U.S. government, while admitting no fault, agreed to a $425,000 settlement with a former inmate who acquired the disease while serving time at the Taft Correctional Institution in Kern County.

And last month, a federal judge ordered the state prison system to comply with an order to remove inmates at high-risk of contracting the serious form of valley fever from Pleasant Valley and Avenal state prisons.

Valley fever is a disease caused by fungal spores that grow in soil, and can have wide-ranging effects. Many never know they have been exposed to the disease, while others suffer flu-like symptoms.

In serious cases valley fever spreads through the body, requiring lifelong treatment and sometimes causing death. The disease was listed as an underlying or contributing cause in 3,089 deaths nationwide between 1990 and 2008, according to a study published last year.

-- Rebecca Plevin of Valley Pubic Radio and Erik Loyd of The Californian contributed to this story.

The Reporting on Health Collaborative involves The Californian, the Merced Sun-Star, Radio Bilingue in Fresno, The Record in Stockton, Valley Public Radio in Fresno and Bakersfield, Vida en el Valle in Fresno, the Voice of OC in Santa Ana and It's an initiative of The California Endowment Health Journalism Fellowships at the University of Southern California's Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.