An interview with Ricardo Alvarez, Mumia’s “movement” doctor.
“The most important point of advocacy is for the release of all our elders in COVID prisons.”
Mumia Abu-Jamal, the internationally renowned journalist, Pennsylvania inmate, and former Black Panther widely considered to be a political prisoner, is now experiencing a health emergency.
In this interview, Abu-Jamal's physician consultant, Dr. Ricardo Alvarez examines each of the four primary ailments that Abu-Jamal is currently suffering from: COVID-19, congestive heart failure, liver cirrhosis, and a worsening of the severe debilitating chronic skin condition.
On February 27, Mumia Abu-Jamal telephoned Pam Africa (coordinator of the uncompromising International Concerned Family and Friends of Mumia Abu-Jamal) to report his COVID symptoms, telling her that his breathing felt "like an elephant sitting on his lungs.” Pam and supporters immediately began an action campaign to telephone Pennsylvania Secretary of Corrections John Wetzl, Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner, and Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf.
The phone calls succeeded by having Abu-Jamal taken to an outside hospital where he received four days of treatment, including the removal of fluid from his lungs. However, a Mobilization4Mumia press release explains that "during this treatment, his legs and arms were inhumanely shackled to the hospital bed, creating additional and unnecessary suffering—impacting open and bloody wounds from his unrelenting skin ailment." The shackling was so unpleasant that Abu-Jamal is now afraid to go back to the hospital again.
“During this treatment, his legs and arms were inhumanely shackled to the hospital bed, creating additional and unnecessary suffering.”
On February 27, when Mumia's current health crisis became known, the first issue of the newly restarted Jamal Journal had literally just finished printing. The newspaper was published mostly to present the evidence supporting our new Color of Change petition to Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner calling for DA Krasner to stop defending Mumia Abu-Jamal's unjust conviction and to secure his release as quickly as he possibly can.
To support our demand for Abu-Jamal's release, the petition cites the overwhelming evidence of police, prosecutorial, and judicial misconduct that has forever destroyed the legitimacy of Abu-Jamal's 1982 conviction. Our 40-page newspaper presents this overwhelming evidence for DA Krasner and the whole world to see.
We recently updated this petition to cite the current health emergency as now making Abu-Jamal's release even more urgent. The updated petition begins by declaring:
“Mumia Abu-Jamal is currently suffering from COVID-19, congestive heart failure, liver cirrhosis, and a worsening of the severe debilitating chronic skin condition. The cirrhosis of the liver and his skin condition resulted from a near-fatal bout with Hepatitis C in early 2015, which went unattended for nearly two years until attorneys sued the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections for failure to meet basic treatment guidelines. At that same time Mumia was repeatedly treated with steroids courses for his skin condition while medical staff neglected to follow up and monitor a severely high glucose level. Because steroids cause an increase in sugar levels, they effectively induced a diabetic ketoacidosis, which required Mumia to be rushed to the ICU. Abu-Jamal now relies upon that very same prison healthcare system for treatment during his current health crisis, and while the higher level of vigilance that occurs with advocacy will surely prompt more responsible monitoring, the very conditions of prison medicine will never suffice for the care of our elders in prisons. Our collective call for Abu-Jamal’s release could not be more urgent. As Abu-Jamal’s physician consultant, Dr. Ricardo Alvarez says: The Only Treatment is Freedom.”
Please sign the Color of Change petition here, and visit www.JamalJournal.com for other ways to support Abu-Jamal, including the current campaign to directly contact Secretary Wetzl, Governor Wolf, and DA Krasner through telephone calls, email, and social media.
Jamal Journal: Mumia Abu-Jamal is now suffering from COVID-19, congestive heart failure, liver cirrhosis, and a severe worsening of his chronic debilitating skin condition. As a consultant physician, please tell us about his current condition. What does Abu-Jamal need that he is not getting from the prison authorities?
Dr. Ricardo Alvarez: The first thing I should note is that in discussing Mumia’s health, it is important for his supporters to understand that he has sacrificed some measure of privacy. This sacrifice has been necessary at times so that supporters can be vigilant of his health and I believe Mumia seeks to help improve the conditions of ALL prisoners. We saw this with the example of the legal precedent set to access Hepatitis C medications. In this regard it is particularly important that Mumia supporters continue to link with and support all political prisoners and all prisoners.
Jamal Journal: Can you please tell us about Mumia's COVID diagnosis?
Ricardo Alvarez: Mumia needs freedom for his COVID. He can get that from Prison authorities. There is a compassionate release program, which cruelly is used to release prisoners on their deathbed and then only in limited cases. It doesn’t have to be that way. Covid is an extraordinary circumstance and a compelling basis for decarceration of our elderly. It won’t happen until we demand action.
In fact, Dr. Brie Williams, a Professor of Medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, and director of the Amend: Changing Correctional Culture Program, and one of the nations experts on care of the elderly incarcerated, has written an affidavit for release based on COVID.
Dr. Williams writes: "I submit this affidavit in support of any defendant seeking release from custody during the COVID-19 pandemic, so long as such release does not jeopardize public safety and the inmate can be released to a residence in which the inmate can comply with CDC social distancing guidelines. The statements in this affidavit are based only on the current state of emergency..."
According to Dr. Williams, because of the COVID pandemic, the entire community is at risk if prison populations are not reduced. Prisons are ill equipped to humanely stop the spread of infection. Correctional Officers bring COVID into and out of prisons.
“Because of the COVID pandemic, the entire community is at risk if prison populations are not reduced.”
Furthermore, inmates have the highest risk of acute illness and poor health outcomes if infected with COVID. There are more than 2.3 million people incarcerated in the United States, approximately 16% of whom are age 50 or older. The risk of coronavirus to incarcerated seniors is high. Their advanced age, coupled with the challenges of practicing even the most basic disease prevention measures in prison, is a potentially lethal combination. To make matters worse, correctional facilities are often ill equipped to care for aging prisoners, who are more likely to suffer from chronic health conditions than the general public. 70% of older people have at least one chronic disease.
So the most important point of advocacy is for the release of all our elders in COVID prisons. Prisons are becoming a death sentence. Some prisoners have feared to share their symptoms for fear of isolation in barbaric conditions.
There is good data to show that releasing our elders is not a significant public safety risk.
Jamal Journal: Then there is the congestive heart failure.
Dr. Ricardo Alvarez: Yes, Mumia needs freedom for his congestive heart failure. We don’t fully know what he needs medically inside prison because we do not yet have all the records. From what we have it is clear he needs regular monitoring.
A diagnosis of Congestive Heart Failure is a serious disease with 50% mortality in 5 years in the best of circumstances. There is interesting data to show that the physiological age of prisoners averages 10 to 15 years older than their chronological age, which means that their physical bodies literally age faster. It makes sense when you consider the enormously stressful conditions of the constant threat of violence. But it also makes sense when you consider that prisoners are denied physical contact and loving connection.
Patients in the general population with congestive heart failure often have to check their weights daily and eat well with low salt diets. Mumia’s diet will always be limited by the poor quality food that is contracted to major food service corporations.
Congestive heart failure may be prone to frequent hospitalizations due to the delicacy of the heart's inability to adequately pump blood. But just as prisoners may fear declaring their symptoms of COVID for fear of isolation, so too Mumia and other prisoners may fear declaring symptoms that would lead to hospitalization because of fear of the barbaric four point restraints. Prisoners are going to think twice about what threshold they will use to seek medical care when they are denied compassionate conditions of hospitalization.
Jamal Journal: The liver cirrhosis?
Dr. Ricardo Alvarez: Mumia needs freedom for his liver cirrhosis. Again, we do not have the full records to determine if he is meeting the highest standard of care to monitor for cancer which would require ultrasounds every six months and checking for certain markers.
We do know that the cirrhosis was caused by the unnecessary delay in treatment that resulted from Hep C treatment protocols. That has been proven in the courts and Mumia’s legal case to force the PA DOC to give him treatment consistent with current guidelines has paved the way for other inmates to get effective but expensive anti-viral medications.
Just as Mumia may fear hospitalization so too he may reasonably fear care in the prison infirmary where in 2015 he was repeatedly given courses of steroids for his skin condition even when there was clear documentation of a grossly elevated blood sugar level. Steroids are known to elevate blood glucose. He eventually needed to be admitted to the ICU in diabetic ketoacidosis as result of this negligence. And yet Mumia is dependent on these facilities for his care.
Jamal Journal: What about the skin condition?
Dr. Ricardo Alvarez: Mumia needs freedom for his severe debilitating skin condition. It makes sense that Mumia’s skin condition is exacerbated in the stressful conditions of imprisonment.
Unfortunately, the number of medications and treatments are limited. We already know the dangers of steroids. Mumia has a deep understanding of his own health and makes clear that he believes in natural remedies when possible.
The release from prison will not only help his skin condition because he can be in a loving and supportive community with human touch but also because he will have access to a variety of balms and other healing products that are denied in prison. Only FDA approved medications or simple emollients such as Eucerin or Vaseline will be administered in prison.
If the severity of his skin condition is exacerbated and hospitalization might be an option then he must suffer the concern of being chained during his entire hospital stay. What he needs now is assurance that he will not be in four point restraints when hospitalized and to have access to healing balms from traditional healers consistent with his medicinal beliefs.
This article appeared in The Jamal Journal. The Jamal Journal is published by the uncompromising International Concerned Family and Friends of Mumia Abu-Jamal. Please visit our website www.JamalJournal.com to learn more.
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