Mumia Abu Jamal
Mumia Abu-Jamal, an African-American journalist, received the death penalty in 1982 at the end of a rushed and racist trial, a wrongdoing that was denounced at the time by the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, Amnesty International and the European Parliament Accused of killing a policeman, a crime for which he has always claimed his innocence, this activist, formerly a member of the Black Panther Party, has been in prison for the last 35 years, 30 of them on death row in Pennsylvania.
Thanks to international pressure, his death penalty was commuted to a life sentence in 2011.
Mumia Abu-Jamal is an emblematic figure in the fight for the universal abolition of the death penalty and his situation has given rise to worldwide outrage.
Now 63 years old, Mumia Abu-Jamal’s health is of increasing concern. He contracted hepatitis C and suffers serious side effects from the disease, yet Pennsylvania prison authorities have refused to provide him with access to appropriate care. The situation, deemed by a federal judge to be “cruel and inhumane” and violating the 8th Amendment of the United States Constitution, is not improving. Some 120 French and European members of parliament have recently advocated on behalf of his serious health condition to the Governor of Pennsylvania and called on him to ensure that Mumia receives treatment, out of respect for human rights and human dignity.
Mireille Fanon-Mendes-France, President of the Fondation Frantz Fanon and member of the United Nations Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent, returned on 12 September 2016 to the Frackville Prison (Pennsylvania, USA) to meet with the incarcerated Mumia Abu-Jamal.
12 September 2016 - Here I am once again at the Frackville Prison where Mumia Abu-Jamal has been imprisoned since his release from death row1 in the maximum security prison in Greene. These two prisons are in the state of Pennsylvania. I must wait 30 minutes for his arrival.
His physical appearance is nothing like it was a few months ago. He has put on weight; he is no longer ashen, and his skin is no longer itchy. Even though some things have improved for Mumia, he still lives under a dark cloud. Because the hepatitis C was not treated properly, there is a chance it could soon turn into cirrhosis or cancer of the liver.
He is very careful about what he eats, but prison food is not good for this type of disease which requires an approach to health that is impossible to follow in such an environment, especially when the guards do all they can to make life impossible and unstable.
Moreover, the medical follow-up provided by the prison is far from being adequate or competent. Hepatitis C is not regarded as very serious in most American prisons2. The close to 7,000 Pennsylvanian prisoners affected by the disease are treated with drugs that are mostly ineffective, while there is perfectly suitable treatment available for the disease which strikes more than 53,000 people in Philadelphia alone (over 250,000 in Pennsylvania).
An antiviral drug developed by Gilead Sciences, Inc. laboratories34 has a 95% cure rate. But it is not available to prisoners, let alone Mumia Abu-Jamal. The prison refuses to pay between $83,000 and $95,000 for a single course of treatment. Isn’t this applying, without shame, a torture-like inhumane treatment which does not respect a person’s dignity, even if the person is behind bars? Senseless suffering and certain death are inflicted on these prisoners while they could easily be treated. A way of having them die more quickly – true institutional cynicism.
Mumia’s lawyers have filed an appeal to the Pennsylvania Federal District Court. The lack of attention given to his life-threatening disease violates the American Constitution’s 8th amendment5 and does not comply with Judge Mariani’s ruling 6] which stated that hepatitis C should be treated with anti-viral drugs such as Harvoni or Sovaldi.
On the basis of this ruling, the lawyers were expecting a decision that would force the prison administration to provide adequate treatment. But to no avail. The judge justified his silence about the prison authorities by stating that the medical committee members were not specifically named in the appeal! This was fine with the administration which decided to distribute this effective treatment to only 24 prisoners out of the some 7,000 in need, chosen because they were near to being terminally ill.
Last September 30th, one of Mumia’s lawyers, Bret Grote6, re-introduced an appeal to obtain an injunction to have prison authorities comply with Judge Mariani’s ruling without discrimination.
This is not the only decision that has not been followed up in Pennsylvania. Last July, Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf - a member of the Democratic Party - signed a law obliging prisons to have the means to test for Hepatitis C in all prisoners born between 1945 and 1965 who are seen by a physician or are receiving regular treatments.
There has been no allotment for this in the budget; prison authorities seem to be using the excuse of lack of funds in order not to address the issue. Then again, there is the cynicism of a system which not only resorts to mass incarceration of its citizens, but also, for economic reasons, refuses to make such testing available, while lives could be saved and the spread of this rampant disease could be considerably reduced. The majority of victims are African-Americans.
Last May, the state’s Pharmacy and Therapeutic Committee recommended cutting back on the use of antiviral drugs; fortunately for now, the Secretary of Human Services for Pennsylvania, Ted Dallas, turned this down.
Mumia’s health, and the health of thousands of prisoners in Pennsylvania are at the centre of a sordid calculation. What it says, is that the lives of these men and women are not valued as much as those of others.
Yet, the 14th Amendment of the American Constitution stipulates equal protection of the law, and the Declaration of Independence of the United States stipulates that everyone is equal. Hence, there is every reason to question the constitutionality of some of the verdicts.
This is what the justice system understood when it finally admitted that this type of discrimination against the right to life and treatment was truly unconstitutional.
There is an American power play at work regarding this question of the right to life and human dignity, as it deems its laws to be above all others. It is only their laws that are important, enacted by them, and only for a certain segment of their population.
Never mind international law and its mandatory standards, never mind fundamental rights, never mind the recommendations made in 2014 by the CERD or by various independent experts[^8].
It is safe to say that in the United States, the system of justice exists to maintain social order, irrespective of justice and the rule of law. Yet, this country prides itself on being a model of law and does not hesitate to impose it now on a quarter of its population that live in almost the same conditions as those that existed during the civil rights movement, and by imposing through force its imperialistic views to the rest of the world.
But there is a ray of hope in this dark and difficult context, such as in 2011, when after years of fighting and mobilisation, two female lawyers succeeded in having Mumia released from death row.
The same lawyers, Judith Ritter and Christina Swarns, have just filed an appeal for a retrial of the 1982 trial which had handed down the death sentence.
Indeed, the United States Supreme Court recently overruled a decision by Judge Ronald D. Castille, who had sentenced Terrance Williams to death7. Not only had the death sentence for the young Williams been signed by the judge while acting as district prosecutor, but this same Judge Castille presided in the appeal case introduced by Terrance Williams’ lawyers. The Supreme Court has just changed its position and requested a new trial, after having paid no attention to this kind of conflict of interest.
Mumia found himself in the same predicament and with the same judge; presented before Ronald D. Castille who was prosecutor at the time, he found himself before him again when the latter became a member of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.
Using this jurisprudence, the lawyers asked for a retrial of the one which at the time was tainted with racism and wrongdoing.
7 December 2011, the United States Supreme Court, judging Mumia’s death sentence as unconstitutional, commuted the sentence to life imprisonment with no possibility of parole. ↩
For more information, see article “New Hepatitis C Drugs Are Very Costly and Unavailable to Many State Prisoners”. ↩
Biopharmaceutical firm conducting research and development of innovative drugs for very “juicy” profits. ↩
There are more than 3 million people in the United States living with hepatitis C, sometimes unaware they have it. The disease rate is increasing slowly, and has serious consequences. In 2013, the number one infectious disease responsible for mortality in Americans was hepatitis C. ↩
“There cannot be (…) nor inflict cruel and unusual punishment”. ↩
African-American, born in 1968 in Pennsylvania, sentenced to death for the murder of two men who had abused him sexually for several years. ↩