Former Black Panther wins legal battle for life-saving medical treatment behind bars

He’s one of 7,000 Philadelphia prisoners with the disease.

Mumia Abu-Jamal. CREDIT: AP Photo/Chris Gardner
Mumia Abu-Jamal. CREDIT: AP Photo/Chris Gardner

Journalist, prisoner, and former Black Panther Mumia Abu-Jamal is one step closer to receiving hepatitis C medication in the Pennsylvania prison where he’s serving a life sentence. On Tuesday, U.S. District Judge Robert D. Mariani ruled that the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections must offer Abu-Jamal direct-acting antiviral medication (DDA), unless a doctor can provide a medical reason — within the next two weeks — why the prisoner shouldn’t receive life-saving drugs.

The decision comes nearly 18 months after Abu-Jamal sued the State Correctional Institution Mahanoy and medical professionals for failing to treat his symptoms, which included an outbreak of infected rashes on his body, severe swelling, and an “abnormal level” of glucose in his blood.

Advertisement

According to the lawsuit filed in August 2015, doctors discovered that Abu-Jamal had an antibody for hepatitis C as early as 2012, however they didn’t inform him of their findings. Doctors also failed to perform diagnostics tests to determine if the life-threatening disease, which can lead to deadly liver cancer and fibrosis, was active. The lawsuit accused SCI of medical neglect that caused “a nearly fatal episode and [caused] severe injuries, including, diabetic ketoacidosis, new onset diabetes, encephalopathy secondary to hyperglycemia, dehydration, acute kidney injury, hyponatremia, hypokalemia, and severe psychological pain and suffering.”

The lawsuit also stated that doctors offered ineffective medication, such as ointments and steroids, instead of testing and medicating Abu-Jamal for what was ultimately hepatitis C. As a result, he sued for medical “deprivation,” “negligence,” and “medical malpractice” and asked the courts to grant him access to proper testing and treatment.

That request was just granted by Robert D. Mariani, despite DOC claims that Abu-Jamal didn’t qualify for the expensive treatment.

“The struggle is far from over: the DOC will no doubt appeal this ruling. But a victory!” said one of Abu-Jamal’s attorneys, Robert Boyle.

Advertisement

The civil rights activist has spent more than three decades behind bars for allegedly killing Officer Daniel Faulkner — a crime he’s adamantly denied and fought. He was initially sentenced to die, but a successful appeal resulted in a new sentence of life without parole.

In 2000, the human rights organization Amnesty International concluded that his trial was “one riddled with unfairness and injustice, including inadequate legal representation, a judge biased in favor of the prosecution, exclusion of African-Americans from the jury, [and] eyewitnesses who changed their story in favor of the prosecution after pressure from police.”

Amnesty International argued that Abu-Jamal’s case represented the problems with the criminal justice system’s determination of guilt and use of the death penalty. But the prisoner is also one of roughly 7,000 people locked away in Pennsylvania facilities who have hepatitis C. Most have no access to effective treatment, precisely because of its exorbitant cost.

Taxpayers funded research that produced “breakthrough” medication for hepatitis C. But that hasn’t stopped pharmaceutical giant Gilead Sciences from hiking up the price of treatment. One pill alone can cost $1,000. Treatment for a 12-week period adds up to $84,000.

Researchers estimate that 17.4 percent of the incarcerated population has chronic hepatitis C, yet few prisoners receive medication.