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Pennsylvania DOC Ordered to Evaluate Mumia Abu-Jamal for Hep C Treatment

Pennsylvania state prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal, serving a life sentence for murder and diagnosed with hepatitis C, sued the state’s Department of Corrections (DOC) in federal court when he was refused treatment for that life-threatening disease.

On January 3, 2017, U.S. District Court Judge Robert D. Marian granted Abu-Jamal’s motion for a preliminary injunction, ordering the DOC to let a doctor examine him within 14 days regarding his suitability for hep C treatment – an order which, given his diagnosis, effectively guarantees he will eventually receive medical care. Abu-Jamal, a well-known political prisoner who was successful in having his death sentence overturned, is a Prison Legal News columnist.

Incarcerated since 1981, Abu-Jamal filed suit in September 2016 seeking medical care after he began to exhibit symptoms of hepatitis C; however, the DOC maintained that he did not qualify for treatment. The latest generation hep C drugs cost around $84,000 to $90,000 per patient. Most medical experts agree that these drugs, including Harvoni and Solvaldi, are over 90% effective at curing hepatitis C. [See: PLN, Aug. 2015, p.22; July 2014, p.20]. Also named as a defendant in the lawsuit is the DOC’s private medical services provider, Correct Care Solutions,

According to Judge Marian’s order, which relied heavily upon the testimony of Dr. Jay Cowan and other medical experts, “the Plaintiff has shown that Defendants have deliberately denied providing treatment to inmates with a serious medical condition and chosen a course of monitoring instead. They have done so with the knowledge that (1) the standard of care is to administer [hepatitis C] medications regardless of the disease’s stage, (2) inmates would likely suffer from hepatitis C complications and disease progress without treatment, and (3) the delay in receiving ... medications reduces their efficacy.”

The DOC had argued that “monitoring” prisoners with hep C rather than providing them with treatment did not violate the Eighth Amendment, but the court rejected that defense. Although medical negligence or malpractice does not constitute an Eighth Amendment violation, “medical treatment may so deviate from the applicable standard of care as to evidence a physician’s deliberate indifference,” the district court wrote, quoting McRaven v. Sanders, 577 F.3d 974 (8th Cir. 2009) [PLN, June 2011, p.46].

The court further noted that Abu-Jamal had a serious medical condition and would continue to suffer if he were not treated, and that “[h]is liver will continue to scar and its functioning will continue to deteriorate.” In granting the motion for a preliminary injunction, Judge Marian observed that the “realities of civil litigation make it likely that waiting for resolution at trial will prolong Plaintiff’s suffering for a significant period of time and result in an overall deterioration of his health.”

The defendants appealed the ruling on January 12, 2017. Abu-Jamal is represented by Bret D. Grote with the Abolitionist Law Center and attorney Robert J. Boyle. See: Abu-Jamal v. Wetzel, U.S.D.C. (M.D. Penn.), Case No. 3:16-cv-02000-RDM; 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 368.

Apparently, by denying hep C treatment to Abu-Jamal and appealing the preliminary injunction, DOC officials are trying to accomplish what they failed to achieve when Abu-Jamal won his appeals and was removed from death row.

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Related legal cases

Abu-Jamal v. Wetzel

McRaven v. Sanders