During his long and debilitating incarceration, Mumia Abu-Jamal has learned a lot about the penal institution and the reforms necessary to improve the system. More recently, he has become a student of the medical conditions facing inmates, none more instructive than his own.
Last weekend, a visit to Frackville, Pa., where Abu-Jamal is currently held at the State Correctional Institution-Mahanoy, one of several prisons in the vicinity, a two and half hour drive from New York City, was an opportunity to hear him expound on prison reform, medical practices and a number of political issues.
Listening to the exchange between him and Dr. Joseph Harris was like eavesdropping on the privacy of a doctor and his patient, and it is a conversation for the most part deemed confidential. (In advance of the meeting, Abu-Jamal approved the presence of the reporter and Karen Taylor.)
“He is looking much better,” Harris said after the visit. “Much better than the last time I visited him.” Before that visit, it was disclosed that Abu-Jamal had been diagnosed with hepatitis C, and the evidence of this disease was readily apparent from his arms and legs, darkened and marked with healed lesions.
“While he may be doing better, there is still a need for treatment, and this has been lacking on part of the prison,” Harris observed. His conclusions have been echoed by Abu-Jamal’s attorneys, who have filed a lawsuit alleging neglect on the part of state prison officials.
“My spirit is good,” Abu-Jamal said when asked about his feelings. But how he felt was of less concern at the moment than the current rash of police shootings of unarmed Black men and women. He was particularly encouraged by the growing resolve of the “Black Lives Matter” movement.
He was not at liberty to talk about the ongoing lawsuit, though his lawyers, Bret Grote and Bob Boyle, in an amended lawsuit, have clearly placed the medical neglect on the prison system, citing hepatitis C as the cause for the outbreak of skin rashes, body sores, all of which continued after Abu-Jamal’s hospitalization last summer.
What can be said about the discussion between Abu-Jamal and Harris is the extent to which both are fully informed on a variety of ailments, and how pervasive they are in the penitentiaries of America. Abu-Jamal, because of the worldwide movement for his release—an imprisonment that began in 1982—his case has brought attention to the medical problems facing inmates.
It was also enlightening to hear them discuss the expensive cost of treatment and the diabolical insensitivity of the biochemical companies and the pharmaceutical giants. Their comments on the cost of cancer drugs was particularly timely, given the appearance of an article the next day in The New York Times. The cost factor both stressed was underscored in the article about Blincyto, an apparently effective drug in the fight against leukemia. A full treatment with the drug is estimated at $178,000, further proof of the cost factor Abu-Jamal and Harris cited.
Abu-Jamal talked a bit about the demographics in the prison, where the majority are young African-American men, many of them Muslims, “with only a handful of whites,” he said. There was also mention of his diet being good, warm words about his family and comrades, the stack of books to be read and his ongoing writing.
Later, in the ride back to New York City, Harris elaborated on Abu-Jamal’s condition, noting that 1 in 6 prison inmates in the nation are infected with hepatitis C. “Many of them are not aware they have it,” he added. Abu-Jamal was only notified of his condition a week ago. “One of the antiviral treatment’s costs is about $90,000, and you know inmates are the last on this list.”
According to the New England Journal Medicine, the treatment of all those prisoners afflicted with hepatitis C would cost nearly $33 billion. Even so, we await the outcome of Abu-Jamal’s lawsuit, which could have ramifications for all the other inmates needing treatment.