In America’s Prisons: Mumia and the Nightmarish Hepatitis C Epidemic

A health crisis of epidemic proportions is raging in this country. Hepatitis C (HCV) has infected 3 million people, including over 700,000 in prison according to the Center for Disease Control. And 170 million people are infected worldwide. The rates of liver cancer because of HCV are growing faster than any other type of cancer.

Medical professionals call it “The Silent Epidemic” because symptoms in those infected by this blood borne disease may not appear for 20 plus years. America’s most prominent political prisoner, Mumia Abu-Jamal, near death in 1981, after being shot by police contracted hepatitis C from a tainted blood transfusion in the hospital. He was not diagnosed with the disease until 2012. If not treated with new life-saving drugs, patients will die from cirrhosis or liver cancer. Mumia is a victim of intentional medical mistreatment by prison authorities, consistent with the state’s attempt to execute him from the beginning.

Federal Court Hearing and Labor Support for Mumia

Mumia’s attorneys are now in federal court in Scranton, Pennsylvania, seeking an injunction for the judge to order the Department of Corrections to provide immediate medical relief. Rachel Wolkenstein who is not Mumia’s attorney on this case but has defended him and his wife, Wadiya, for nearly 30 years, has written an excellent report on the hearing proceedings and what’s at stake. To win life-saving medical treatment now and ultimately his freedom will require mass mobilizations in the streets.

In 1999, the Labor Action Committee to Free Mumia Abu-Jamal organized support through the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU). All West Coast ports were shutdown for two hours, while the San Francisco longshore workers led a march of 25,000 to demand freedom for Mumia. This is the kind of action needed to save Mumia now.

This week, the Japanese Railway Union, Doro Chiba, sent a letter calling for Hepatitis C treatment and protesting his frame-up, imprisonment and demanding he be freed. And last year, UNITE, the largest union in Britain with 1.4 million members sent a letter to Pennsylvania officials protesting state mistreatment of Mumia and demanding his immediate release from prison to get competent medical care.  A strong San Francisco Labor Council resolution called for adding their “voices to the international call for the immediate release of Mumia Abu-Jamal” given his innocence and wrongful incarceration.

Gilead Profits are Soaring While Hepatitis C Patients are Dying

There is a new cure for this disease invented by Dr. Michael Sofia that’s over 90% effective. However, Dr. Sofia’s medication, Sovaldi, and the company Pharmasset were bought for $11 billion dollars by Gilead Sciences, Inc. of Foster City, California. Gilead, who didn’t do the hard research and development work, is now selling its highly effective cure, the Sovaldi and Harvoni pill, for a prohibitive price of $1,000 for a daily treatment of 2-3 months or up to $100,000. That’s unaffordable for most working people and is extremely costly for Medicare, Medicaid and private insurance companies. A Senate Finance Committee reported released last month blasts Gilead for pursuing “a calculated scheme for pricing and marketing its hepatitis C drug based on one goal: maximizing revenue regardless of the human consequences.”

The U.S. is the only advanced industrialized country that does not have price controls on pharmaceuticals. These meds should be free for poor and imprisoned people. If we had socialized medicine, it would be. In a recording by Prison Radio, Mumia has sharply critiqued Gilead’s price-gouging.

Prison authorities who callously refuse treatment for prisoners are imposing a death sentence. Yet, case law holds that denial of treatment based on cost is deliberate indifference under the Eighth Amendment and therefore unconstitutional.

Gilead essentially eliminated its patient financial assistance program which provided for a negotiated reasonable price based on the patient’s ability to pay. Egypt, which is experiencing a Hepatitis C epidemic with 15-20% of the population infected, negotiated to get Gilead’s pill for $10. And the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transit Authority (SEPTA). Philadelpia’s transit system is suing Gilead for its prohibitively high pricing, seeking reimbursement of “unjust” profits, plus penalties and interest.

SF Demo Called to Protest J.P. Morgan & Gilead Profiteering

Dr. Diana Sylvestre who runs the Oasis Clinic for hepatitis C patients in Oakland, is angry about Gilead’s profiteering and simultaneously cutting their patient assistance program “leaving thousands of persons without access to medications and at risk for cirrhosis, liver cancer and death.” They’re calling for a protest at J. P.Morgan’s Big Pharma Profiteering Conference. It’s time to mobilize. Join their protest Monday calling for “Public Health Not Corporate Wealth” and “Gilead is ripping off the healthcare system and promoting patient suffering”.

Time: 12 NOON, Monday January 11, 2016

Place: Westin St. Francis Hotel

335 Powell St., Union Square, San Francisco


More articles by:

Jack Heyman (jackheyman@mac.com) is chair of the Transport Workers Solidarity Committee www.transportworkers.org and a retired longshoreman who writes on labor politics and history. 

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