Health

Political Prisoner Sues For Being Denied Hepatitis C Treatment

CREDIT: AP Photo/Mark Stehle

An amended lawsuit submitted by lawyers of African-American political prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal alleges that Pennsylvania state prison officials neglected to treat him for Hepatitis C, leading to the development of severe, full-body rashes and open sores that landed him in the hospital earlier this year.

In March, medical personnel rushed an unconscious Abu-Jamal to Schuylkill Medical Center in Pottsville, Pennsylvania after he experienced renal failure and his glucose rose to life-threatening levels. During his stay, officials allegedly didn’t give Abu-Jamal any treatment or information about his condition, despite some knowledge of his medical history — including a 2012 Hepatitis C diagnosis.

Abu-Jamal, a well-known print and radio journalist, has been incarcerated since his 1982 conviction and death sentence for the murder of a Philadelphia police officer, a crime he says he didn’t commit. The outcome of his trial — a proceeding that Amnesty International said didn’t meet international standards — drew the ire of activists around the world and sparked a campaign to get him off death row and vacate his sentence.

Mumia Abu-Jamal

Mumia Abu-Jamal

CREDIT: AP Photo/Chris Gardner, File

In the amended lawsuit, Abu-Jamal’s lawyers say his medical neglect at a state correctional institution caused the conspicuous skin rashes and body sores on his body, which appeared last summer and persisted well beyond his initial hospitalization. The original lawsuit — filed in June by Bret Grote of the Abolitionist Law Center and co-counsel Bob Doyle — accused hospital personnel of denying Abu-Jamal access to friends, family, doctors, and lawyers during a second visit.

“One of the dangers of the illness is that people may not know they have it, which could delay treatment. Since his diagnosis, the prison hasn’t monitored Mumia’s Hepatitis C, or anyone else’s for that matter,” Grote told ThinkProgress.

“They only informed Mumia that his Hepatitis C was active last week,” Grote added. “Under guidelines established by the Infectious Diseases Society of America, every Hepatitis C-positive person should be treated. They say highest priority should be in cases of serve manifestations of the illness, including skin conditions. So he certainly qualifies for that treatment.”

Pennsylvania Department of Corrections officials didn’t return ThinkProgress’ requests for comment.

Abu-Jamal counts among the one in six prison inmates across the country who are infected with Hepatitis C, in what the U.S. Surgeon General describes as a “silent epidemic.” The newest Food and Drug Administration (FDA)-approved antiviral treatment for the condition, though very effective, costs up to nearly $90,000, which makes prison officials reluctant to dole it out amid increasing prison populations and tightening state budgets. An analysis in the New England Journal of Medicine found that treating all Hepatitis C-positive inmates would cost nearly $33 billion, more than triple the combined total spending for medical care in 44 state prison systems.

But this ongoing financial quandary hasn’t deterred calls to provide life-saving treatment to Hepatitis C-positive prisoners, particularly due to the regimen’s success rate of 95 percent. In June, two inmates filed a lawsuit against the Massachusetts Department of Corrections, alleging prison officials withheld medication from 1,500 people. That followed a similar case in Minnesota, where inmates sued their state prison system for medical neglect. Though courts haven’t entertained high price of medication as a valid explanation, state prison systems have been left to their own devices to decide what’s considered “medically necessary.” In some states, expensive treatment is prioritized for inmates with advanced forms of illness, as reported in the Wall Street Journal.

“These drugs work, they don’t have to be taken for very long, there are no side effects, and they’re effective nearly 100 percent of the time,” Joel Thompson, a staff attorney at Prisoners’ Legal Services and the lead counsel for the Massachusetts lawsuit, told BuzzFeed News in June. “But because of the sticker price of the drug and the large cohort, it’s a scary number of people in line.”

Exorbitant prices for new Hepatitis C treatment haven’t only affected prisoners. Medicaid budgets have been strained too, causing more than 30 states to classify the medication as a “non-preferred drug” — which creates more hurdles for clinicians trying to heal their patients. Researchers say these restrictions may violate federal laws that require states to cover drugs with FDA labels, especially since drug companies more than likely have rebate agreements with the Department of Health and Human Services. Even if Medicaid programs wanted to negotiate prices, federal law forbids them from doing so.

In recent years, Hepatitis C has surpassed HIV as a cause of death in the United States. When left untreated, the infection can develop into liver cirrohosis, which slows blood flow and impairs this organ’s ability to process nutrients and toxins. Hepatitis C has also been tied to hepatic encephalopathy — a buildup of toxins in the brain that causes confusion, disorientation, and fatigue. Other long-term effects include skin sores, inflammation of the kidneys, and type 2 diabetes — some of which Abu-Jamal reportedly experienced.

Though it’s unclear how Abu-Jamal contracted Hepatitis C, the disease usually spreads via needle sharing and tattooing, two common activities in correctional facilities. In general, the people infected with hepatitis C are disproportionately low-income.

Grotes said the case could have big implications for other prisoners suffering under similar circumstances.

“Since we have one plaintiff, it’s not the sort of case where we could argue for system-wide changes, but setting a precedent where Mumia is able to get treatment would benefit others who are seeking the same relief,” Grote said. “These new medications aren’t complicated. People take this pill every day for eight to 12 weeks. The issue is cost. Part of this scandal is the monopoly pricing in the pharmaceutical industry for treatments of diseases that affect poor people and people of color disproportionately.”

For more than 30 years, much of the world has come to know Abu-Jamal, also a former Black Panther, through his radio essays and published books on social and political issues. Despite the efforts of the Fraternal Order of Police and other detractors to secure his execution, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit upheld a lower court’s decision to set aside the death sentence in 2011.

Since then, Abu-Jamal has served out his life sentence among general population inmates while continuing to express his thoughts online. In April, he released a commentary on the police killing of Walter Scott shortly after watching the initial television reports from a prison infirmary. Former police officer Michael Slager was eventually indicted on murder charges for shooting Scott.

“Remember the young man who allegedly shot — not killed — two cops in Ferguson several weeks ago? Every politician in America leaped at the chance to call the kid a punk, a thug. Now, what do you call Slager?” Abu-Jamal said. “What have you heard? Even though he’s been fired, he’s called ‘officer’ today, or ‘Mr. Slager.’ He killed a man for a traffic citation and lied about it. Is he a punk, a predator, or what Huey P. Newton used to call, a pig?”