Mumia Abu Jamal seeks injunction to force Pennsylvania prison officials to treat hepatitis C

Photo distributed by Prison Radio, shows the effects of a skin ailment affecting Mumia Abu Jamal.

Legal proceedings are underway in a Pennsylvania courtroom as FSRN contributor and former death-row resident Mumia Abu Jamal seeks medical care for hepatitis C. FSRN’s Nell Abram has more.

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Mumia Abu Jamal fell critically ill in March while serving life in prison without parole at Pennsylvania’s SCI Mahanoy prison. Convicted of the fatal shooting of a Pennsylvania police officer, Abu Jamal spent thirty years on death row before his 1982 death sentence was overturned on constitutional grounds. In 2011, he was transferred to the general population. Since his hospitalization, Abu Jamal say he has been systematically denied proper care and is asking the court to intervene. But the state claims that Mumia has failed to fully navigate the administrative process to seek additional medical care. Noelle Hanrahan is Director of Prison Radio and is attending the hearings. She joins us to discuss the case.

Nell Abram: First, bring us up to date. When did Mumia fall ill and under what circumstances was he hospitalized and what has transpired in the interim?

Noelle Hanrahan: Mumia Abu Jamal has been very ill for over a year. He’s had a full body skin rash, that’s 80 percent of his skin was broken, open wounds. This has been going on for a long time. Now, early in 2015, he went to the infirmary, he was put in the infirmary at SCI Mahanoy, and they started treating his incredible skin rash with topical steroids. The topical steroids triggered a diabetic reaction. They noted it in his charts. If he were out here, and not in prison, they would have sent him to the hospital. They noted that it needed to be monitored, and then they didn’t monitor him for three weeks. Mumia went into a diabetic coma on March 30th and was transported to a hospital, an outside hospital, unconscious, in renal failure, and was minutes from death. They stabilized him at the hospital and very quickly transported him back to the infirmary at SCI Mahanoy, within three days, with no diagnostic testing, with newly stabilizing his blood sugar levels. Mumia filed a grievance, he demanded that they diagnose the underlying condition to the skin rash, this horrible skin rash. And he then has pursued it till now. So we are in court, this is the follow up for Mumia’s grievance, and then a lawsuit forcing the Department of Corrections of Pennsylvania to both diagnose him and then treat him.

NA: What’s Mumia’s condition now and why exactly is he petitioning the court for an injunction, what’s at the core of his petition?

NH: Both his lawyers, and the movement in general, have been very active in trying to get Mumia diagnosed. So we were able to force the Department of Corrections to take him to a tertiary care medical facility in July. It was there that he was diagnosed with active hepatitis C. Now, since that time in July, the Department of Corrections has refused to treat Mumia. That means that he has been subject to a continuing infectious disease that attacks both your liver and other organs. The other organ that it attacked in Mumia’s case, it’s called an extrahepatic condition, is his skin. So Mumia has active hepatitis C and he’s being denied treatment. We are now right in court, in federal district court, in Scranton, Pennsylvania. We were there on Friday demanding a preliminary injunction, which means irreparable harm is being done to Mumia Abu Jamal if he’s not given treatment right away. Now that treatment is, in fact, a cure. There is a cure for hepatitis C, a 95 percent cure rate, one pill a day, that the prison could administer, but they are refusing to.

NA: Explain hepatitis treatment and recent advances in curing the disease.

NH: The treatment is amazing. In 2013, a Doylestown [Pennsylvania] chemist, Michael Sofia, discovered a way in which to get the treatment to take. So, before 2014 and the FDA approval of the new antiviral, quick acting cure drug, there was a process where only 30 percent of the people who were treated with interferon and ribavirin were able to be cured. And it took a year and a half, and the side effects were very severe. It’s now the case that it’s one pill a day for approximately 12 weeks, with very minimal side effects, and there’s a 95 percent cure rate. So there’s a drug on the market, owned by the Gilead Company that will cure people.

Now, people have to know the context of hepatitis C. It’s the most prevalent infectious disease in America; It kills more people per year than HIV; and 70 percent of the people don’t know they have it. So there’s 3 million people. It’s very important that, when there is a public health imperative such as this, treat a curable disease. That it happens, and it actually happens inside prisons as well. For Mumia, who is being harmed because it is active and is damaging his liver, and also for everyone else, because there’s 10 thousand inmates who are positive for hepatitis C in Pennsylvania prisons

NA: Noelle Hanrahan, Director of Prison Radio, there’s an ongoing class action suit on behalf of those prison inmates. What’s the status of that case and what effect might the outcome of Mumia’s case have on that matter?

NH: It was filed and it’s preceding through the courts, this class action lawsuit. Mumia’s case won’t directly affect that lawsuit, but what it will do is it will force the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections and the corporate Correct Care Solutions healthcare company, which has the contract to provide medical care to Pennsylvania inmates, it will force them to develop protocols and to actually treat people with hepatitis C. So we’re confident that if we win this case in federal court, that it will change the possibilities for treatment for many inmates in Pennsylvania.

NA: And Mumia’s case? The hearing began on Friday – was Mumia able to attend? How long do you expect the hearing to continue and when do you expect a final decision from the court?

NH: This is a really historical opportunity. Mumia was present through video, Skyping or streaming. He attended the entire hearing. He was on the witness stand, he was cross examined. So that is something that hasn’t happened. He performed very well. Our witnesses represented our case the first day, did a very, very good job. And this is America, and it’s often the case that prisoners and prisoner litigants don’t prevail. The judge was very thorough and precise, and very clear about the standards. We have the facts on our side. We have the law on our side, you know? And we are going to continue to work this case. Now, it’s, it is life and death, it is a situation where we need to be as assertive and aggressive as possible, because this is a disease that, it just continues. I mean, he has an infectious disease. But, if they don’t treat it, it could very likely cause permanent, irreversible damage, and the damage is happening now. So we’re going to still do this. It takes everything, it takes people’s actions, it takes a lot for the courts to actually deliver justice. And so, we’re doing it. We’re there, we’re going to do it. We are going to be there tomorrow and in Scranton, Pennsylvania, and we’re going to continue to advocate for justice for Mumia and other prisoners.

Noelle Hanrahan is Director of Prison Radio. She spoke to FSRN’s Nell Abram by phone from Pennsylvania.

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