Mumia Abu-Jamal and the Fight Over Prisoner Rights and Healthcare
Veteran political prisoner rights activist Dr. Johanna Fernandez of Baruch College joined us to discuss the latest developments by political prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal to attain adequate medical attention.
JARED BALL, PRODUCER, TRNN: Welcome, everyone, back to the Real News Network. I’m Jared Ball here in Baltimore.
Longtime political prisoner, journalist, and author Mumia Abu-Jamal testified in a Scranton, Pennsylvania courtroom via webcam last week that hepatitis C medication he needed had been denied him by prison officials because they say he is too healthy to receive treatment. Supporters in his legal team are continuing this week to make the case for Abu-Jamal that he be given drugs he himself testified might save his life. Without them, he said, I will die.
To discuss this and more is Dr. Johanna Fernandez, who teaches in the Black and Latino Studies Department at Baruch College, is a veteran political prisoner rights activist and editor of Mumia Abu-Jamal’s latest collection of essays, Writing On The Wall. Welcome back to the Real News, Dr. Fernandez.
JOHANNA FERNANDEZ: Thank you very much, Dr. Ball, for having me on your show.
BALL: So please, just tell us, what is the latest regarding Mumia’s health, and latest efforts to attain proper medical care for him?
FERNANDEZ: Well, Mumia has definitely shown improvement from the crisis into which he fell in March of this year, on March 30, 2015. His skin condition, however, after what his doctor said was all of the medication that can possibly be given a prisoner, after all of that his skin condition is still with him. And he continues to scratch a lot, and that’s important because apparently scratching is, is one of the symptoms of patients with hepatitis C, with active hepatitis C. And that was one of the issues that was thoroughly discussed in the courtroom, both last Friday and yesterday.
BALL: So what is being argued this week, still? What are the two sides arguing, and what particularly are prison officials or the state saying is the reason that he is apparently too healthy? I mean, the reports over the last few months of Mumia’s health, as you said, deteriorating were pretty stark. It’s amazing that someone could actually argue he’s too healthy to receive this medication.
FERNANDEZ: Right. So I think it’s important to note that the judge who’s hearing this case, Judge Mariani, prefaced the proceedings by saying, after he quoted from the report submitted to the court by Mumia Abu-Jamal himself, that the problem before us is “serious”, quote-unquote. And that really set the tone for the proceedings. Our side is arguing that Mumia has active hepatitis C, and that he should immediately be treated with the medication available on the market, which has a 95 percent cure rate. The opposing side, immediately after the judge presented the case, suggested that the case should not be heard by him, and that it should be immediately thrown out, because according to them Mumia did not exhaust his administrative appeals before he proceeded into the court. That was a position that was struck down after over two hours of argumentation on both sides. The judge presented a formal position that Mumia had done everything he needed to do within the law to proceed to the court.
I say this because the opposing side essentially did not want to hear the details of the crisis. They wanted to dismiss the case on a technicality. And that led the judge to ask the opposing attorneys whether in fact they wanted to proceed in the court by making arguments that were attentive to form and not content. Which–in a case involving a prisoner or prisoner like Mumia, and in a case involving the healthcare of prisoners generally, that is, that is really important. The judge has suggested that he is concerned about content and the gravity of the matter.
So yesterday, our doctor, Dr. Joe Harris, essentially argued according to his expertise that in Mumia’s case, because he has developed significant fibrosis, which is scarring of the liver, that suggests that he has active hepatitis C that will continue to devour his liver if he is not given the treatment he needs. So that’s what our side argued. And the other side essentially suggested that Mumia is not sick enough to receive these medications.
BALL: So let me just ask very quickly, as we will continue to follow this and I know you all will be wrapping this up this week. But there are those who have argued and continue to argue that this is just the state’s end run around Mumia being taken off death row last year, in looking for another way to execute this longtime political prisoner. How do you respond to those who take that perspective of this?
FERNANDEZ: Well, I think it’s a little complicated. I think that once again, Mumia is at the cutting edge of an issue that concerns thousands of prisoners in Pennsylvania, and in the nation. In the 1990s, as you know, he became the face of the movement against the death penalty, and we stopped his execution. But now the issue, as he’s aged in prison, is illness. And I think that the reason why the state of Pennsylvania is hesitant to offer Mumia the treatment he needs, and that has been proven he needs, according to expert witness, is that if they make a decision to treat Mumia with hepatitis C medication they’re going to have to treat the 10,000 other prisoners with active hepatitis C in Pennsylvania who have filed a class action suit.
So the issue is really not establishing a precedent that then will force them to take ethical medical action in the cases of so many others.
BALL: So Dr. Fernandez, you were talking about some of the broader issues involved in this case. Could you also say a little bit more about the implications, more broadly speaking, for the entire prisoner community in this country and healthcare?
FERNANDEZ: Yes. I think it’s important, Dr. Ball, to note that the expert doctor that the other side brought in yesterday was Dr. JC Cowan. He’s the president of Correctional Medical Associates. And Correctional Medical Associates is a subsidiary of Corizon, which is a Tennessee company that provides medical services to prisons in many states, including Pennsylvania and New York City.
Now, this is important because that entity, Correctional Medical Associates, was just put on trial by New York City’s government. Local government. Because that same outfit was providing prisoners at Rikers medical care. And as a result of shoddy and unethical medical care, dozens of prisoners have died. Not just at Rikers, but around the nation. And as a result of this malpractice, the New York City Council decided that they were going to fire this company. And this was the expert, an expert associated with this company, that the Department of Corrections in Pennsylvania brought to the stand. So what we will be hearing today in court is a cross examination on the part of our attorneys of the ethical character of the doctor who’s being brought in by the other side as an expert.
So this, this has implications. What’s going on in the courtroom today has grave implications for Mumia and his health and his life, but also for the health of hundreds of other prisoners, thousands of other prisoners, in Pennsylvania, New York, and around the nation.
BALL: Dr. Fernandez, thank you very much for joining us here again at the Real News Network.
FERNANDEZ: Thank you.
BALL: And thank you all for joining us, as well. For all involved, I’m Jared Ball again here in Baltimore saying, as always, as Fred Hampton used to say, to you we say peace if you’re willing to fight for it. So peace, everybody, and we’ll catch you in the whirlwind.
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