Above Photo: Mumia Abu-Jamal, third from the left, in a picture taken last April after his medical emergency with supporters Abdul John, Pam Africa and Johanna Fernández. Photograph: Courtesy of Johanna Fernandez
- Request for life-saving anti-viral medication rejected on technicality
- Judge finds Pennsylvania protocol for inmates out of line with constitution
The internationally known imprisoned former Black Panther and journalist Mumia Abu-Jamal has had his request for a life-saving hepatitis C treatment denied by a federal judge.
Abu-Jamal was sentenced to death for the 1981 killing of a Philadelphia police officer, but maintained his innocence and Amnesty International says he was denied a fair trial. After 30 years on death row, his sentence was overturned on constitutional grounds. He is now serving life without parole, and his supporters have shifted their focus to his access to medical care.
Abu-Jamal sued the state of Pennsylvania to receive anti-viral medication for hepatitis C after he was hospitalized in critical condition last year. Officials told him he was not sick enough to be eligible for the treatment, which has a 90-95% cure rate but costs $1,000 per dose, and is taken once a day for 12 weeks.
On Wednesday US district court judge Robert Mariani said Abu-Jamal’s lawsuit wrongly targeted the warden and the prison system’s medical chief, and should have named the four members of the state’s hepatitis C committee instead. Abu-Jamal’s lawyers say the committee did not exist at the time the lawsuit was filed.
One of the members was later added as a defendant: Dr Paul Noel, chief of clinical services for the state’s department of corrections. The judge cited his testimony that the state’s protocol is designed “to identify those with the most serious liver disease and to treat them first, and then … move down the list to the lower priorities”.
He said prisoners with esophageal varices, or enlarged veins in the throat that have begun to bleed would “move on to immediate treatment, and if they don’t have varices, they can wait”.
In court filings, a lawyer for the Pennsylvania’s prison system wrote “there simply is not enough money to treat every individual” with chronic hepatitis C and that treating all of them “would cost approximately $600m. Such an expense would effectively cripple the department”.
Even as the judge denied Abu-Jamal’s request he still found that the evidence and testimony presented in the case demonstrate that Pennsylvania’s hepatitis C protocol for inmates fails to meet constitutional standards.
Newly obtained evidence in Abu-Jamal’s case revealed that Pennsylvania treats just about five of more than 6,000 prisoners who are infected with hepatitis C. The details will probably be used in an unrelated class action lawsuit filed by other Pennsylvania prisoners seeking similar treatment for the disease.
Hundreds who have been moved to the prison infirmaries are “dying in isolation, often chained to their beds” says Noelle Hanrahan, a supporter of Abu-Jamal who monitors prison conditions and records his commentaries for Prison Radio.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, hepatitis C has infected three million people in the United States, including more than 700,000 in prison nationwide.
Other states have responded to the health crisis differently. In the last two years New York increased spending on drugs for prisoners infected with the disease by more than 350%. California is also treating prisoners with hepatitis C on a large scale.
Judge Mariani wrote that Pennsylvania’s “treatment protocol as currently adopted and implemented … prolongs the suffering of those who have been diagnosed with chronic hepatitis C”. He added that it “allows the progression of the disease to accelerate so that it presents a greater threat” of related liver disease, cancer and death.
Abu-Jamal’s lawyers called the decision a partial setback.
“We are frustrated he won’t get the treatment that the rest of the judge’s opinion makes clear he is entitled to,” said Bret Grote of the Abolitionist Law Center. “But the judge’s ruling makes clear that if what he considers the proper defendants were in front of him, he was prepared to strike down the protocol and order that my client be treated in accord with proper medical standards.”