Mumia’s fight for medical treatment

By RACHEL WOLKENSTEIN

Below are excerpts from a report by attorney Rachel Wolkenstein on the fight of Mumia Abu-Jamal to obtain necessary medical treatment. Mumia, a noted political commentator and innocent political prisoner, was convicted in 1982 of killing a Philadelphia police officer. He received the death penalty, a sentence that was later reduced to life imprisonment without parole.

A remarkable and legally historic evidentiary hearing in Mumia Abu-Jamal v. Kerestes took place over three days in late December 2015 in the U.S. federal district court in Scranton, Pennsylvania.

The amended lawsuit filed Aug. 3, 2015, by attorneys Bret Grote of the Abolitionist Law Project and Robert Boyle is an action for damages, injunctive relief and a declaration of the unconstitutional denial of medical treatment to Mumia Abu-Jamal.

The immediate question is whether Judge Robert Mariani will grant Mumia a preliminary injunction and rule that the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections (DOC) has been deliberately indifferent to Mumia Abu-Jamal’s medical condition in violation of the Eighth Amendment’s proscription against cruel and unusual punishment and order the DOC to immediately treat Mumia’s active Hepatitis-C with the new antiviral medications.

The legal brief filed Aug. 17, 2015, in support of the Motion for Preliminary Injunction succinctly summarizes Mumia’s case: “Mumia Abu-Jamal is suffering severe and chronic symptoms from untreated, active Hepatitis-C. In the past several months he has experienced diabetic shock, a painful and pruritic [extremely itchy] rash affecting his entire body, edema, skin lesions, anemia, and likely fibrosis of the liver.

“Scientific advances in the treatment of Hepatitis-C have established a new standard of care that could cure Abu-Jamal of his Hepatitis-C and alleviate the painful symptoms within 8-12 weeks without significant side effects through daily administration of a single pill. DOC defendants, however, are refusing to provide Abu-Jamal with this medically necessary, life-saving treatment.”

In riveting testimony, Mumia’s doctor, Dr. Joseph Harris, fully described how over the past two years these new antiviral drugs (marketed as Salvadi and Harvoni) have “revolutionized” the treatment of Hepatitis-C (HCV) with a 90-95 percent cure rate. Immediate treatment for all those with active Hepatitis-C is now the recommended standard of care by the American Association for the Study of Liver Disease (AASLD) and the Infectious Disease Society of America (IDSA) and is endorsed by the Center for Disease Control (CDC).

The World Health Organization added these new medications to its essential medicines list. In curing HCV, the “extra-hepatic” secondary symptoms including fatigue, itchy rashes, arthritis and muscle pain will also be cured. But the cost in the United States is $1000 per pill, making a course of treatment approximately $90,000….

At the close of the intensive evidentiary hearing on Dec. 23 after the testimony of Dr. Harris, two DOC expert specialists, the DOC’s chief medical officer and the SCI Mahanoy chief medical officer, the following was not in dispute:

  • Mumia Abu-Jamal has active chronic Hepatitis-C, stage-two fibrosis with a 63 percent probability of cirrhosis of the liver.
  • Mumia has “anemia of chronic disease.”
  • Mumia’s severe itchy skin rash is not resolved despite months of intensive treatment.
  • Severely itchy skin is often a secondary symptom of HCV.
  • There is no medical reason for Mumia not to be treated with the new antivirals for Hepatitis-C.

The dispute is clearly not a medical or scientific one. It is social, one of cost and, in regard to prisoners, one of peneological purpose. This was the proverbial “elephant in the room” that the DOC witnesses would not directly address….

The DOC maintains that this is simply a case of doctors with differing opinions of treatment. That argument was exploded by the DOC expert witness on Hepatitis-C treatment, Dr. Jay Cowan, who responded to attorney Robert Boyle’s question, that “yes, he would recommend the new antivirals to anyone who had Hepatitis-C who could pay the $90,000 cost.”

The DOC’s new “Interim Hepatitis-C Protocol,” secretly issued on Nov. 12, 2015, does not take any account of the new drugs’ potential to cure Hepatitis-C and stop its deadly progression and alleviate painful and debilitating symptoms suffered by a significant portion of the prison population. Rather this is a protocol to deny this new treatment to Pennsylvania prisoners. According to the testimony of the head of DOC medical services, Dr. Peter Noel, only five out of some 6000 prisoners with active HCV are getting treatment.

The DOC protocol does not allow treatment to be considered until the prisoner is close to death, with severe complications from cirrhosis of the liver….

The DOC lawyers and doctors, from the medical specialist “experts” to the head of its medical services, laid bare the reality of medicine for profit in capitalist America and the function of prisons as repressive punitive institutions without a modicum of care for the medical well-being of prisoners.

The court evidentiary hearing unfolded with rare public display of the DOC’s mendacity and utter contempt for its own laws and rules: the suppression and then attempt to keep its Hepatitis-C Treatment Protocol “confidential;” submission to court of a false declaration from its chief of DOC health services; and its expert witnesses’ testimony that withheld information from Mumia’s medical records that contradicted their opinions. In cross-examination Mumia’s lawyers successfully discredited the DOC’s presentation of false or misleading evidence.

At the close of the evidentiary hearing, Judge Mariani set Jan. 13, 2016, as the date that all parties would get transcripts of the hearing, and that written briefs were due by both Mumia and the DOC by Feb. 3, 2016. The judge said he would decide as quickly as possible, making this case his priority….

But just as Mumia wouldn’t have gotten into court on this case without international publicity, medical treatment to keep Mumia alive and for those other thousands suffering from Hepatitis-C won’t be won relying on the courthouse or the state legislatures. While fighting hard in the courts, there can be no illusion in obtaining justice there.

The state, its cops, its prisons are intent on silencing Mumia, and what we are dealing with now is state execution by medical mistreatment. The state won’t stop; the only way Mumia will survive is if he is freed. It will take a broad international campaign that calls for agitation, publicity, and demonstrations building the broadest possible support demanding Mumia’s freedom….

 (Photo by Yong Kim / Philadelphia Inquirer.) Activist and scholar Angela Davis appears before a photo of Mumia Abu-Jamal as she listens to a phone message from Mumia to the Philadelphia conference on THE BLACK RADICAL TRADITION.

The Black Radical Tradition

The Jan. 7-10 event, held at Temple University, drew over 1500 people, according to Tony Monteiro, one of the key organizers. The conference’s Call to Action decried a government that represses immigrants and Muslims while unleashing “a reign of racist police terror against people of color.”

The goals of the conference were broad, said Monteiro: “One, to discuss the moment that we’re living through … in terms of the integrity and the safety of Black lives. And to go beyond, to the whole question of social and economic justice for poor people and for working people.”

The Thursday, Jan. 7, session, with the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, was entitled “The Black Prophetic Voice in a Morally Broken World.” Friday evening’s panel discussed “The Moral Bankruptcy of Capitalism: The Black Radical Tradition as Socialist Alternative.” Cornell West was the featured speaker.

Saturday began with a panel on “War, Peace, and Global Justice: Resistance to the U.S. Empire,” with Glen Ford, Vijay Prashad, Johanna Fernandez, and Steven Salaita. Speakers at the Jan. 9 evening panel on prisons and political prisoners included Angela Davis, Charlene Carruthers, and Mumia Abu-Jamal.

Mumia reviewed the history of U.S. disruption efforts against the Black liberation movement. “Today,” he said, it’s perfectly acceptable to large segments of the American populace to beat someone to death … particularly if that person is Black.” In these times, he observed, police are equipped with weapons of war, stemming especially from fake wars on terrorism; murder has been legalized.

Mumia said we should be encouraged by the formation of Black Lives Matter. Speaking to the younger generation, he enthused: “It’s movement time again! We welcome you—right on time!”