Word has come that Pennsylvania political prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal has tested positive for COVID-19. Supporters learned of the diagnosis March 3, as they were gathered in front of the office of Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner to call for Abu-Jamal’s release and that of all incarcerated people over 50, who are vulnerable to premature death from COVID-19 and other illnesses.
Johanna Fernandez, with the Campaign to Bring Mumia Home, received word from Abu-Jamal’s medical attorney Robert Boyle confirming a diagnosis all had feared. Abu-Jamal, who had been hospitalized to remove excessive fluid from his lungs, was also diagnosed with congestive heart disease.
Fernandez described speaking with Abu-Jamal on Feb. 26, noticing his speech was altered. “He reported having labored breathing and feeling a weight he described as ‘having a little elephant on my chest.’ Mumia rarely complains about his health. We immediately mobilized to put pressure on the prison system to test him for COVID-19.”
Initially SCI Mahanoy officials said Abu-Jamal’s COVID-19 tests were negative. His supporters, however, aware of the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections’ historic neglect of serious health conditions for Mumia and other incarcerated people, posted an alert calling on prison officials to seek additional health treatment. It appears that this international pressure campaign made a difference.
Fernandez reported that 66-year-old Abu-Jamal has severe liver damage, because in the past the PA DOC had delayed treatment for his hepatitis C. “Prisons in the U.S. are a death trap. U.S. prisons have resisted decarceration under COVID-19, yet countries around the world, including Iran and Italy, have had mass release of prisoners.
“There were over 500,000 unnecessary deaths in the U.S. because of COVID-19. Who are we as a society — willing to allow elderly people, disproportionately Black and Latinx, to die prematurely and unnecessarily because of the vindictiveness of the criminal justice system?
“In the 1980s and ’90s, the U.S. mass-incarcerated Black and Latinx communities after industries abandoned working-class cities like Philadelphia. The system warehoused people they could not employ, giving them 40-years-to-life sentences often related to drug use — crimes which today are not prosecuted.
“If we say ‘Black lives matter,’ then imprisoned people — poor, Black, Latinx and victims of white supremacy and racism — must also matter.”
Racism — a public health crisis
Calling in from California, Dr. Ricardo Alvarez, who has served as a medical consultant for Abu-Jamal, said, “Racism has been identified as a public health crisis. Prisons are the physical manifestation of racism. Not only Mumia, but all imprisoned elders are endangered by COVID-19. His treatment must be his freedom.”
Pastor Keith Collin, a prison minister for 30 years, called on DA Krasner to do the right thing and release Abu-Jamal. “You ran for office as a reformer, but now, Mr. Krasner, you are walking in the footsteps and following the same path as former district attorneys Ed Rendell and Lyn Abraham. Trafficking in Black bodies has got to stop.”
Speaking for the Prisoners Solidarity Committee of Workers World Party, Ted Kelly stated: “Nelson Mandela taught us that you can tell the character of a country by how it treats its prisoners. Thousands of prisoners in the U.S., including over 100 in Pennsylvania, have died since COVID began — not as the result of an accident, nor the result of negligence — but from a criminal policy to keep men and women behind bars, while the deadly pandemic rips through these concentration camps of poor and working people.
“The virus is coming into prisons from the guards and staff. Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf and DOC Secretary John Wetzel have the legal ability to release thousands of prisoners to save lives.”
A statement from international activist Julia Wright was read in which she said: “Since Mumia let us know about his alarming symptoms, serious alerts about his health have gone out internationally. Larry Krasner, John Wetzel, and Tom Wolf know it; their email boxes have been jammed full with messages pouring in from all over the country, from Germany, France, England, Spain, Africa, the Caribbean and more.
“I sent out health alerts yesterday to the U.N. Human Rights Council and the U.N. Special Rapporteur Against Racism, following my February 18th testimony for Mumia and our elderly political prisoners. A member of the Rapporteur’s staff responded to say that the state of Pennsylvania had already been under scrutiny by the U.N. Human Rights Council.”
Cindy Miller with Food Not Bombs Solidarity described Pennsylvania’s prisons as a cash cow for private corporations including Aramark, Securus, Well Pass, Smart Communications, Global Powerlink and Polycom.
Closing out the program, Gabriel Bryant with Black Philly Radical Collective challenged Krasner’s supporters and staff, who say they support justice, to not fall in line with the prison system against their own consciences. “This is the third time in a week and a half we’ve been out here. For many of us, we’ve seen the truth and we refuse to fall in line.”