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Faint outlines of hills are visible in a California dust storm.
Photo by jimkruger on iStock

As I walked to work on a Monday morning it was a bit windier than usual and a little cold. I dodged a few wisps of dust and looked down at my freshly shined boots to keep more dust out of my eyes. I wondered how soon the shine would be gone. 

Some time passed in my work office, and I stood up to go outside. But when I grabbed the door handle, I was almost jerked off my feet by the wind sucking the door open.

The sky started to turn colors, from blue to brown, and the dust spurted across the yard in waves until the sun grew dim. The sky then turned completely gray, the same color as the concrete prison housing units. I remember thinking what an interesting backdrop that would be for a painting.

The blue sky is usually a prisoner's escape, a place you can look to as a symbol of freedom as the birds fly through it.

A haboob is another name for a particularly towering dust storm, and this was the first one I’d seen at California State Prison, Corcoran, where I reside. But any dust storm in California's Central Valley is not just a dust storm. The dirt here can carry deadly spores that cause a disease called Valley fever.

According to some experts, reported cases have increased in recent years because of the drought conditions, which can cause the fungus to form into these spores. In 2019, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported 9,004 cases of the disease in California, more than triple the number of cases a decade earlier.

Many people experience mild to no symptoms, but the infection can attack the spine, brain and lungs, causing infections, hospitalizations and possibly death in severe cases. When combined with COVID-19, it can make for a grim circumstance.

People with suppressed immune systems at prisons within the hardest hit regions have been particularly vulnerable because they have nowhere to go. Valley Fever is also known to disproportionately impact Black and Filipino people.

Between 2006 and 2012, there were hundreds of cases and dozens of deaths linked to Valley fever, particularly in two facilities: Pleasant Valley State Prison and Avenal State Prison. Both are about 50 miles west of my facility.

As I looked across the yard, I could no longer see the perimeter fence, and officers were scrambling to maintain visibility of the incarcerated people. The officers finally announced a yard recall when visibility was reduced to 10 yards.

We were told to return to our housing units for an emergency count to verify that no one escaped in the storm. As we trekked through the sand, dust filled our ears and eyes, and despite our masks — worn for the pandemic — some still got in our mouths. When I looked up and could no longer see any signs of the sun and everything was in shadow, that's when I felt comfortable to call this a haboob.

My first experience with a haboob was 20 years earlier while working as a first responder in Death Valley, Calif. It was midday and in the distance I saw a dark wall rising, like a scene from the movie “The Mummy.” When the dust wall was 20 minutes out, it was high enough to block out the sun in an instant. The whole of Death Valley went dark. After it passed, the sun came back and everything was coated brown with sand.

As I crossed the yard during this smaller haboob, I felt grateful for my mask and wondered if I was breathing in any Valley fever spores. I remember thinking it’s a good thing I can't catch Valley fever through my ears or I’d be through.

Once I entered my cell, I heard the window whistling, and I realized there was no caulking around its edges. So I stuffed wet toilet paper around it.

Then I looked out the window and noticed small birds hanging on to the razor wire that swayed in the gusts of wind and sand. They, like me, were waiting for the blue sky to return.

(Additional reporting by PJP)

Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Global Forum Online has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.

Jessie Milo is a writer, artist and poet incarcerated in California. He is a volunteer for InitiateJustice.org and an advocate for mental health.