The recent emergency hospitalization of Mumia Abu-Jamal arising from alarming failures to address his chronic illnesses has exposed the inaccuracy of an assertion long made by adversaries of this inmate whom many around the world consider a political prisoner.
His adversaries charge that Abu-Jamal receives special treatment in prison.
That’s true, but not in the way Abu-Jamal adversaries mean it.
When an ambulance delivered Abu-Jamal to the intensive care unit of a hospital outside of the Pennsylvania State prison where he is serving a life sentence, he was on the doorstep of a diabetic coma – a condition that is often fatal. Abu-Jamal’s blood sugar level was 779, which is just shy of the diabetic coma level of 800. Additionally, his sodium levels were also highly elevated, another condition with potentially dire medically results.
If Abu-Jamal is as pampered in prison as adversaries assert, his diabetic condition would not have festered as it did dangerously for several months necessitating his emergency hospitalization. In reality, the ‘special treatment’ adversaries proclaim is actually specialized mistreatment.
Routine blood tests register blood sugar levels and Abu-Jamal had reportedly received multiple blood tests inside the prison infirmary during treatments this year for illnesses including a full-body outbreak of eczema that caused painful itching and burning.
Yet, no evidence has been released by state authorities to counter charges from Abu-Jamal’s family and far-flung supporters that prison medical personnel did not aggressively address Abu-Jamal’s elevated blood sugar levels which would have been recorded on those tests. Prison medical personnel did not address Abu-Jamal’s diabetic condition with medications or changes in the typical high-starch/high-sugar diet regularly served to prisoners, including prisoners with diabetes.
Further, Abu-Jamal’s family and supporters, who, despite obstacles, visited with him before, during and after that emergency hospitalization, said he had suffered an adverse reaction to medication prison personnel prescribed for the eczema. That medication produced severe swelling in Abu-Jamal that caused his skin to rupture. The rupture produced open sores that required antibiotics.
“Mumia said he is burning inside from head to toe from that skin rash. He was still burning when he was sent back to the prison from the hospital for that diabetic shock,” said Pam Africa, director of the Philadelphia-based International Friends and Family of Abu-Jamal, who saw the ailing Abu-Jamal after his return from the hospital. Africa said Abu-Jamal has lost over 80-lbs since early January and is frail.
“Mumia said other inmates have the same skin rash. He said over 100 people inside that prison have diabetes.”
Far from the ‘special treatment’ adversaries complain about, Abu-Jamal apparently received the same substandard medical care as all inmates in the Pennsylvania State prison system.
The Pennsylvania state prison system spends over $217-million of its $2-billion dollar budget on medical care, according to a report from the PEW Foundation. Medical personnel comprise over 970 of the nearly sixteen thousand persons working for the Pennsylvania State prison system according to a state Department of Corrections report.
Underscoring the fact that Abu-Jamal does not receive “special treatment,” prison authorities quickly removed Abu-Jamal from that hospital ICU, despite his grave diabetes and other conditions, returning him to the same prison infirmary where he had initially received medically deficit care – including the failure to properly diagnose and treat his diabetes for weeks.
Professor Cornell West, the activist academic, blasted the “chronic medical neglect and malpractice by prison staff” in a broadcast public service announcement supporting better medical treatment for Abu-Jamal and other inmates.
Abu-Jamal’s wife Wadiya was more blunt. She suggested that the medical neglect in her husband’s case could be deliberate.
“This is execution by medical neglect and mistreatment,” she said in a statement. (Abu-Jamal spent nearly thirty years on Death Row where he was subjected to intense campaigns for his execution from police unions and conservative politicians…campaigns that included illegal and unethical actions.)
“Mumia was sent back to the prison, without an expert medical diagnosis or a treatment plan or his sugar levels under control. He was transferred back to the prison infirmary with a temperature of 102 degrees, to the same people who knew for weeks and didn’t treat his [diabetes] before he collapsed and went into diabetic shock,” she stated.
Abu-Jamal was sentenced to death for the December 1981 fatal shooting of Philadelphia police officer Daniel Faulkner. That death sentence came during a trail that was fundamentally unfair according to an extensive review by Amnesty International plus examinations by many other legal experts.
Pennsylvania state courts have consistently rejected Abu-Jamal’s appeals, finding not a single flaw in his conviction despite those same courts overturning hundreds of death sentences due to errors by police, prosecutors, defense attorneys, jurors and even judges. In Abu-Jamal’s case, courts have rejected solid evidence that police and prosecutors illegally withheld evidence of innocence and coached prosecution witnesses to give false testimony. Those fair trial rights robbing violations in Abu-Jamal’s trial are the same violations that have led those same Pennsylvania state courts to grant appeal relief to other inmates – more evidence that Abu-Jamal has endured specialized mistreatment.
Federal courts, for their part, found just a single flaw in the death penalty deliberations by the trial jury, a determination that led to an upending of Abu-Jamal’s death sentence. Elimination of the death penalty produced his current sentence of life in prison without possibility of parole.
Life in prison without parole sentences, like Abu-Jamal’s, are considered a form of torture by many around the world.
In September 2014, PEN International, the association of writers, approved a resolution at its world congress, calling for a legal review of Abu-Jamal’s life sentence. “International jurisprudence is moving towards recognition that a life sentence without parole…may amount to torture or other cruel inhuman or degrading punishment,” that PEN resolution noted. The German PEN branch proposed that resolution.
Abu-Jamal’s adversaries dismiss claims that he’s been subjected to constant mistreatment, including this latest medical episode. However, that stance is refuted by repeated examples of mistreatment that began at the scene of that 1981 crime.
During that incident leading to his arrest, Officer Faulkner shot Abu-Jamal in the chest, gravely wounding him in the lung and liver. Yet, police kept Abu-Jamal at the crime scene for nearly 30-minutes, as his lungs filled with blood, before transporting him to an emergency room just a few blocks away for treatment. Police immediately took Faulkner to that same hospital ER minutes away from the crime scene.
Police beat Abu-Jamal at the crime scene and in the emergency room, evidence shows. Police though have denied any crime scene beating but acknowledged “inadvertently” ramming Abu-Jamal’s head into a pole multiple times and dropping him while putting him into a police wagon.
Abu-Jamal, in an affidavit issued in 2001, stated that at the crime scene “I was pulled to my feet and then rammed into a telephone pole, beaten where I fell and thrown into a paddy wagon…Upon arrival [at the emergency room] I was thrown from the wagon to the ground and beaten.”
Police and prosecutors have maintained that Abu-Jamal’s confession, that helped seal his conviction, was made in that hospital ER. Suspiciously, existence of that alleged confession did not surface until weeks after the murder of Faulkner when police were investigating a complaint from Abu-Jamal about police beating him at the crime scene and hospital. Abu-Jamal has steadfastly denied uttering any confession.
Supporters of Abu-Jamal have presented Pennsylvania prison authorities with a list of demands that includes initiation of an “independent investigation” of prison healthcare. “The state’s medical services have been so neglectful – even abusive – that its entire healthcare operations warrant review,” states one item on that list of demands.
This demand for an investigation of prison health care cites the “unexpected and unexplained sudden death” last year of Phil Africa, an inmate from Philadelphia who was a member of the MOVE organization.
While supporters of Abu-Jamal have renewed their demand for his release, a study of prison healthcare spending by PEW released last year called for consideration of releasing inmates over 55-years-old as a way of reducing soaring prison costs – particularly health care costs. On April 24th Abu-Jamal turns 61-years-old. Pennsylvania ranks among the Top 10 states holding the highest number of older inmates.
“Many states have adopted medical or geriatric parole policies that allow for release of older, terminally ill or incapacitated inmates,” that PEW report stated.
Linn Washington, Jr. is a founder of This Can’t Be Happening and a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, (AK Press). He lives in Philadelphia.