The PA Prisons Gave Mumia Cirrhosis
Mumia Abu Jamaland Dr.Joseph Harris
And This is How He Will Survive It
“The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.”
I first saw Mumia Abu-Jamal in July 2015 in the Mahanoy Correctional Facility’s visiting room, in Frackville, Pennsylvania. His defense committee worked to get me placed on the list as a “regular visit,” because he was gravely ill, and the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections (DOC) would not allow an outside physician to examine him. I couldn’t take anything with me into the visiting area—no stethoscope, no penlight, no blood-pressure cuff. Nothing.
To prepare for my visit, I studied every Internet image of Mumia that showed the severity of his illness and skin condition. It seemed familiar. Where had I seen this before? Was it the Fonn Hospital in Dakar, Senegal? Was it at the clinic I ran, while volunteering with Doctors without Borders in Junta, Valle de Cauca, Colombia? Then it hit me. It was in Mugonero, a one-goat town, in Rwanda, where I saw a patient covered with extensive hyper-pigmented scales similar to the ones on Mumia’s skin.
His attorney sent me his medical records, and I pored over each and every page of the hundreds of pages. One blood-work test result lit up all the lights in my mental hard drive—the lab report read, hepatitis C antibody: reactive. His exposure most likely happened through a blood transfusion in 1981, after the Philadelphia police shot him. In the 1980s, hepatitis C (hep C) had not been discovered, so there was no real testing for it. The terminology then was “non-A, non-B hepatitis,” and its prognosis was unknown.
Despite the fact that I had seen recent pictures of him ill, over the decades of his incarceration I had become accustomed to seeing the many images that show Mumia as tall, strapping, and strong, with a vibrant life force. As I stood waiting in the visiting room, a drawn, dark, aged man rolled toward me in a wheelchair. He appeared physically and spiritually broken. He was weak and his feet were painfully edematous. Suddenly, I realized that this man was Mumia.
We exchanged greetings and I pushed him in his wheelchair to a relatively quiet section of the room, which was also filled with prisoners and their visitors. When I first saw him he couldn’t stop scratching. I examined the skin lesions, listened to his heart and lungs, by pressing my ear to his chest and back. Since I didn’t have a pencil and paper, I quietly assessed him, taking detailed mental notes that I would transcribe later.
While the conditions in the Mahanoy visiting room were not “Third World,” they were not optimal for examining a patient with extensive skin lesions. The room was crowded with inmates wearing burgundy-and-yellow jumpsuits, with DOC, written in white on the back; and their friends and families. Children ran up and down. There was a din of conversations in English, Spanish, French, Garifuna, Arabic, and Russian. Corrections officers blasted instructions and announcements over the loudspeaker. There were rows of seats, with small tables interspersed throughout, where families played board games or cards, ate, or smooched on the Q-T. Peering around the room that reminded me of a high school auditorium, I was apprehensive. Would I be able to help this man out of his misery? Would my diagnosis be correct?
After my examination and after seeing and feeling the condition of his skin, I patted his face and said, “I got you. You have NAE.” As I explained this affliction to him, he became relieved because he finally knew that he could be cured. NAE or Necrolytic Acrial Erythemia is a skin disorder of hep C, and I was certain that NAE was the cause of Mumia’s skin condition. As I described this disease, I saw an instantaneous improvement in his countenance: His eyes brightened, he became more talkative, excited even.
A huge part of how patients heal from health challenges is frequently, “in the head,” as many doctors and other healthcare professionals will tell you. It was obvious that he felt better, because he finally knew what was going on. As I was leaving, I said to him, “If you don’t have hep C, I’m going to put on my hat and coat and say it’s beyond my clinical capacities and I’ll see you later. A few months later, Mumia said, “I’ll never forget the tremendous sense of relief that I finally had something that none of the doctors, either in the prison infirmary or at Geisinger Medical Center could provide—a diagnosis.”
In the early part of 2015, Mumia developed severe fatigue, syncopy (loss of consciousness), and was hyperglycemic and nearly comatose. He was admitted to Geisinger, where he was shackled to the bed and placed in the intensive care unit (ICU). The initial diagnoses included new-onset Type 2 diabetes; some infectious process; possible ketoacidosis; and severe psoriasis. Before being admitted to the hospital, for more than a year, he experienced an extensive, intermittent— but worsening—pruritic skin rash, which caused open lesions on many parts of his body including his hands, forearms, and feet.
His skin was scaly. The pruritis was maddening and kept him awake at night, making it nearly impossible for him to carry out his work as a journalist and broadcast commentator. Most of the treatments prescribed for him by the DOC physicians had minimal response: High-potency corticosteroids, cyclosporin, oral prednisone, ultraviolet light therapy, and tar soaps were ineffective. Petroleum-gauze wraps afforded some relief. (The nurses affectionately called him “Mumia the Mummy.”)
The DOC’s prolonged refusal to treat Mumia, for hepatitis C, is medically indefensible, and is one of the clearest cases of malpractice that I have encountered or studied in my entire medical career. In addition, hundreds if not thousands of prisoners with hep C, who developed cirrhosis (severe scarring of the liver), while incarcerated by the DOC can now sue for medical malpractice, and will likely achieve success.
Another delay was caused when one of his “supporters” prevented me from visiting him for three months. The supporter decided that I was not qualified, so my evaluation of Mumia was hindered. This caused a delay in the medical-legal filing process, and, likely, contributed to the ultimate development of cirrhosis. Additionally, three days before the December 2015 hearing in Scranton, Pennsylvania, the supporter suggested I be replaced as an expert witness by a physician who works for Big Pharma: This would have caused even further delays.
Big Pharma is guilty of profit mongering. The cure for hep C is anywhere from $50K to $90K, in the United States, for a ninety-day course of treatment. This, coupled with the DOC medical system’s astonishing stupidity, cruelty, corruption, perjury, and cost-saving measures are directly responsible for the onset of Mumia’s cirrhosis. A private outfit, Corizon, runs the DOC’s healthcare “service.” The privatization of medical care in correctional settings is driven by profit hunger, which causes companies like Corizon to neglect the fundamental tenet of Hippocrates Oath, to “Do no harm.” It is through these behaviors that one arrives at an idea of the “degree of civilization” outside of the prison walls, and inside the corporate boardrooms.
Mumia is lucky. He’ll start treatment this week, but, because he now has cirrhosis, his life expectancy is markedly shortened, and he is at risk for other conditions in the future. However, his strength and revolutionary spirit, along with the love expressed for him by people from all over the world, cannot be underestimated in his ongoing fight for survival, justice, and freedom.
By: Joseph Harris, MD
Harlem, New York
About Dr. Joseph Harris
Joseph Harris, MD is a diplomate, American Board of Internal Medicine, and an American Academy of HIV Medicine (AAHIVM) HIV Specialist. He received his medical education at the State University of New York Downstate Medical Center, and completed his residency in Social Internal Medicine at Montefiore Medical Center. Additionally, he completed one year in General Surgery at Harlem Hospital. He also received training in Tropical Disease at Fon Hospital in Dakar, Senegal, and Cochin in Paris, France. He was a member of Doctors without Borders the year the internationally regarded organization won the Nobel Prize. He is currently at work on a memoir.