Political prisoner and revolutionary activist Mumia Abu-Jamal was notified March 31 by the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections that he would start receiving Harvoni to treat his hepatitis C infection on or before April 6.
At the same time, Abu-Jamal was informed that medical tests given earlier in the week confirmed he has cirrhosis of the liver, putting him at greater risk of other health complications, including deadly liver cancer.
This bittersweet victory follows a nearly two-year struggle on the streets and in the courts to win access to life-saving hep C medications for Abu-Jamal and thousands of other prisoners in Pennsylvania.
When Abu-Jamal first filed for legal action against the Pennsylvania DOC in September 2015, medical tests taken in July indicated there was a 60 percent chance he already had cirrhosis. His hep C infection was first diagnosed during a routine blood test in 2012. He began to show signs the infection was worsening in March 2015. Suffering from a severe skin rash and unexplained weight loss, Abu-Jamal suddenly collapsed in a diabetic near coma.
Abu-Jamal and his supporters are relieved that he will finally get the treatment he needs, But there is also a rising tide of anger over the DOC’s refusal to comply with previous court requests. Abu-Jamal’s attorney, Robert Boyle, noted that, while it is a victory that the DOC has been ordered to get the drugs to Mumia, “It is a scandal that his condition had to get this bad first. It is a scandal also that the DOC has dragged its feet.”
Abu-Jamal told Prison Radio: “My first reaction was really shock, anger, disbelief. If I had been treated in 2015, if I had been treated in 2012 when they say they first diagnosed it, I wouldn’t be this far advanced. I wouldn’t have F4 [a stage when the disease advances from liver fibrosis to cirrhosis].”
In a March 31 public announcement, DOC spokeswoman Amy Worden claimed the only reason for Abu-Jamal’s treatment was the progression of his disease diagnosed by tests taken earlier in the week. But hep C experts say treatment with anti-viral medications should be routine at any stage of the disease.
And what Worden failed to mention was that the DOC has fought treatment for Abu-Jamal at every step of the way, including most recently refusing to comply with a Jan. 3 federal order to test and treat him within 21 days.
PA protocol ruled “unconstitutional”
Despite Abu-Jamal’s grievances within the prison system and subsequent court appeals, the DOC did little throughout this process to test for the progression of the disease. It repeatedly stalled, gave false information to the courts and refused to provide adequate treatment.
During a Dec. 15, 2016, federal court hearing, the state’s malfeasance came to light. The DOC had filed a false affidavit subsequently used by a U.S. court to dismiss an earlier suit by Abu-Jamal. During the same hearing, the DOC’s attorney inadvertently revealed evidence of a recently developed state “protocol” for hep C treatment.
The DOC protocol stated that new anti-viral medicines were to be provided only when a prisoner’s disease had gotten to the stage where it was imminently life-threatening, as evidenced by advanced cirrhosis and other symptoms. In other words, the state would wait to treat until the prisoner was near death.
In a January 2017 ruling in Abu-Jamal’s favor, federal Judge Robert Mariani called these state protocols an unconstitutional form of “cruel and unusual punishment.” Mariani further noted that the cost of providing antiviral drugs to all the Pennsylvania prisoners needing them should not be used as a basis for withholding medication.
Around 700,000 prisoners in the U.S., including 6,000 in Pennsylvania, suffer from active hep C. To date the Pennsylvania DOC has provided treatment for roughly 1 percent of prisoners with the disease. The state argues that providing treatment is cost prohibitive, at around $50,000 per prisoner if drugs are purchased at a bulk rate. This argument ignores the reality that failure to treat the curable disease means spending hundreds of thousands of dollars per prisoner to treat related diseases including diabetes, heart disease and cancer.
Enough is enough
Speaking to a group of Abu-Jamal supporters, attorney Boyle noted that the DOC complied only at the very last minute with Judge Mariani’s order to treat Mumia. He denounced what he called the DOC’s outrageously cavalier actions: “This exposes the DOC’s brutality. They wait until people go into a serious phase of a disease and then say, practically, ‘If it’s too late, it’s too late.’”
On the day the DOC informed Abu-Jamal that he would be receiving the hep C treatment, its state attorneys filed a motion with Judge Mariani to have the case “declared moot.” After trying to evade compliance with the previous court order, the DOC now wants to avoid paying compensation for damages Abu-Jamal has suffered because of their negligence. The state also clearly wants to avoid a higher court ruling that could go against them, opening the door to a mandate to treat all prisoners.
Supporters of Abu-Jamal have organized countless demonstrations and petition drives to pressure Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf and DOC Commissioner John Wetzel. Activists are asking for vigilance and continued protests and calls to insure that the DOC delivers the full drug treatment to Abu-Jamal. There is concern that many supporters are under the false impression that Abu-Jamal was already receiving the drugs under Mariani’s January ruling.
Pam Africa, with the International Concerned Family and Friends of Mumia Abu-Jamal, stated: “There would be no concession from the DOC to treat Mumia without the international protests and legal actions. Moreover, the fight for Mumia is a fight for all prisoners, and all of us — hep C treatment for Mumia and all prisoners and those outside the prison walls as well! To the DOC, we say enough is enough!”