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Challenging a ‘Nazi Prison Camp Standard of Care’ for Mumia Abu-Jamal

Photo by Gary Stevens | CC BY 2.0

Photo by Gary Stevens | CC BY 2.0

It has been almost five years since doctors working for the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections, taking a routine blood test on long-time prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal (who was in the process of being transferred from 29 years on the state’s death-row to a general population prison following a lengthy appeals process that ultimately overturned his death penalty on constitutional grounds), and discovered he had contracted a Hepatitis C infection.

There was no follow-up of that test to see if his Hep-C had become an active and thus life-threatening infection until July of 2015 — a period of three years — and then that “follow-up” came only after he had collapsed in prison on May 30 of that year and been rushed out of the prison to a hospital, where he was diagnosed with serious case of diabetes. That’s when he was finally tested to see if he had a Hepatic C viral load in his blood (he did).

As Bret Grote, legal director of the Abolitionist Law Center in Pennsylvania, and Abu-Jamal’s attorney in a case seeking to force the DOC to provide the current Center for Disease Control-recommended medicine that has a 90% cure rate for the disease, says, “In all that time, right down to the present, the DOC has not provided any treatment for Mumia. Whether his active infection is doing further damage — fibrosis or even cirrhosis of the liver or other damage to him — we don’t know. But he clearly is at greater and greater risk of serious health damage the longer this non-treatment goes on. (During a hearing last year before Judge Mariani, a DOC doctor testified under cross examination that there was a “63% chance” that Abu-Jamal already had cirrhosis, meaning that his liver is already being irreversibly damaged by the progressive disease.)

The good news is that the latest stalling effort by the DOC — an appeal to the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia of an injunction by a federal district judge in Scranton ordering the state to start treating Abu-Jamal with the latest approved Hep-C medication, and a request for a stay of that federal district judge’s treatment order until the appellate court panel has a chance to hear the arguments in the case — was rejected by the three-judge panel.

As Grote says, “That’s a good sign because it means that the judges, who will be considering the appeal of District Judge (Robert) Mariani’s injunction, are saying they do not believe that the DOC is likely to win its case. But their ruling doesn’t mean Mumia is getting treated. He’s not.”

He says that next move for Abu-Jamal’s legal team will be to file a petition for the Judge Mariani to hold the DOC in contempt, ordering immediate treatment to begin, in compliance with his preliminary injunction issued Jan. 3, 2017.

If Judge Mariani takes that step, Abu-Jamal’s long-delayed treatment should finally begin, Grote says.

Grote has had harsh words for the State of Pennsylvania Department of Corrections’ non-treatment not just of his client, Abu-Jamal, who is serving a life-sentence without chance of parole for the murder of white police officer Daniel Faulkner in Philadelphia back on Dec. 9, 1981, saying that the DOC’s “protocol for treatment” of Hep-C, which states that state-of-the-art medicines are only to be provided if prisoners show evidence of progression of the disease to a point that it has become imminently life threatening (the presence of advanced cirrhosis and esophageal varices), resembles a “Nazi death camp standard of care.”

The state, like many states across the country, does not want to have to provide the new medications, despite their remarkable proven success rate at clearing the disease from the body, because of the cost, currently estimated at about $80,000 per person treated. The DOC admits that as many as 5400 of its prison inmates have active Hep-C cases like Abu-Jamal’s, with only perhaps as many as 1% of them receiving the medications. (Critics argue the state, by bargaining as a bulk buyer, could surely obtain the medication much more cheaply than that quoted retail price, just as insurance companies reach deals to obtain costly patented medications for other diseases at sharp discounts from retail price.)

Abu-Jamal’s supporters around the world fear that Pennsylvania, under pressure from the powerful police union, the Fraternal Order of Police, which was long calling for the state to “fry Mumia!”, may be trying to “execute” him by medical neglect now that the courts have ruled that it no longer can execute him for a conviction at a trial that, fraught with examples of judicial, prosecutorial and police misconduct and perjured evidence by prosecution witnesses, remains highly controversial.

There is a chance that Abu-Jamal’s case could end up becoming very costly not just for the State of Pennsylvania, but for other states in the Third Circuit district too, including New Jersey and Delaware.

If Grote is right and the Third Circuit judges, in ruling to deny the DOC’s request for a stay of Mariani’s treatment order pending their hearing of their the department’s appeal is an indication that they don’t think the DOC has a strong case, and if they later rule in favor of Judge Mariani’s decision of last August that denial of the new medications constitutes an unconstitutional form of “cruel and unusual punishment,” it could result in an order to treat all infected prisoners in these states prisons.

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Dave Lindorff is a founding member of ThisCantBeHappening!, an online newspaper collective, and is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).

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