Abu-Jamal Hep C treatment victory will benefit 7,000 PA state prison inmates

By Matt Stroud, Criminal Justice Researcher/Writer, ACLU of Pennsylvania

A federal judge has ordered Pennsylvania’s Department of Corrections to provide Mumia Abu-Jamal with hepatitis C treatment. Photo via The Inquirer.

In a victory for some 7,000 Pennsylvania state prison inmates, a federal judge this week ordered that Mumia Abu-Jamal — the activist and radio journalist serving a life sentence at a state prison in Frackville — should be treated for his hepatitis C infection.

Hepatitis C is pervasive in prisons; in Pennsylvania, about 14 percent of the state’s prisoner population is infected with it. But the only cures are produced by Gilead Sciences Inc., AbbVie Inc., and Merck & Co., which charge as much as $94,500 for complete treatment. In a remarkable opinion by Middle District Judge Robert D. Mariani, the judge was unmoved by the cost, which could rise to as much as $600 million if every one of Pennsylvania’s infected state prisoners receives treatment. “The only conceivable injury [the Pa. Department of Corrections] will suffer is monetary,” the judge wrote.

“As a result of the grant of this injunction,” he continued, “Defendants will be required to treat Plaintiff with expensive medication. While the Court is sensitive to the realities of budgetary constraints and the difficult decisions prison officials must make, the economics of providing this medication cannot outweigh the Eighth Amendment’s constitutional guarantee of adequate medical care.”

Bret Grote of the Abolitionist Law Center in Pittsburgh — which also collaborated with ACLU-PA on its recent lawsuit against Allegheny County Jail for its treatment of pregnant women — told The Inquirer that judge Mariani’s ruling was the first time “a federal court has ordered prison officials to provide an incarcerated patient with the new [hepatitis C] medications that came on the market in 2013.”

Grote and co-counsel Robert Boyle have no expectations that the case is over.

“We expect an appeal,” Grote wrote on Facebook following the opinion’s release, “but for now this is a major victory.”

IN OTHER NEWS

(The Pennsylvania criminal justice news that could use a second look.)

Bias is inevitable in criminal risk scores. ProPublica found that Bernard Parker, pictured left, was determined to be high risk; Dylan Fugett, on the right, was low risk.
  • From The Morning Call: “Glitch puts felony charge on Fountain Hill Man’s record”

“Ernesto Galarza went to court twice and won. He stood trial on a drug conspiracy charge and a Lehigh County jury found him not guilty. The New Jersey native sued the officials who improperly held him as an illegal immigrant after his arrest and changed the way local law enforcement agencies work with federal immigration authorities. But more than eight years after he was arrested at an Allentown construction site where police suspected his boss was selling drugs, the experience is still dragging him down.” Read more about Galarza’s 2010 ACLU case here.

  • From NBC News: “To End Decades on Death Row, [A Pennsylvania] Inmate Makes an Agonizing Choice”

“‘James Dennis entered a no-contest plea, not a guilty plea, because he maintains the same position that he has maintained for 25 years: that he is innocent of this crime,’ one of his lawyers, Karl Schwartz, told the judge. ‘He and his family have made this incredibly difficult decision based on his and their strong desire to have him home and free, [in] lieu of potentially years of continuing litigation.’ The no-contest plea is not uncommon in claims of wrongful conviction. It allows prosecutors to keep a conviction without a new trial. The defendant, meanwhile, acknowledges there may be enough evidence for another guilty verdict but can still claim innocence.”

  • From ProPublica: “Bias in Criminal Risk Scores Is Mathematically Inevitable, Researchers Say”

“Defendants inaccurately classed as ‘high risk’’ and deemed more likely to be arrested in the future may be treated more harshly than is just or necessary, said Alexandra Chouldechova, Assistant Professor of Statistics & Public Policy at Carnegie Mellon University, who also studied ProPublica’s COMPAS findings. Chouldechova said focusing on outcomes might be a better definition of fairness. To create equal outcomes, she said, ‘You would have to treat people differently.’ Chouldechova’s paper, ‘Fair prediction with disparate impact: A study of bias in recidivism prediction instruments,’ was posted online in October. Chouldechova is continuing to research ways to improve the likelihood of equal outcomes.”

  • From The Wall Street Journal: “Why Some Problem Cops Don’t Lose Their Badges: [An] examination shows how states allow some police officers to remain on the force despite misconduct”

“Pennsylvania has reported no officer decertifications since 2012 and just 31 in the past 12 years, according to data the state provided to the Journal. Cpl. Adam Reed, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania agency in charge of decertification, said the state’s law is ‘very specific’ as to when an officer can be decertified and the agency ‘does not act as an “internal affairs.”’

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It’s Free Speech Week! So how did Pennsylvania celebrate?

By Andy Hoover, Legislative Director, ACLU of Pennsylvania

(13th and Locust, Philadelphia, PA. October 21, 2014, credit: Ben Bowens)

(13th and Locust, Philadelphia, PA. October 21, 2014, credit: Ben Bowens)

Free Speech Week is October 20-26. Here in the commonwealth, Governor Tom Corbett celebrated by signing a bill that allows courts to censor speech before it happens.

Wait, huh? What?

On Tuesday, Corbett signed the so-called “Revictimization Relief Act,” or what I’ve taken to calling the Free Speech Decimation Act. Perhaps it would be better to title it the Fund the Lawyers Act.

Senate Bill 508 allows a district attorney or the Attorney General or the victim of a “personal injury” crime to seek an order from a civil court to block the “conduct” of a person with a criminal conviction if the conduct “perpetuates the continuing effect of the crime on the victim.” That phrase is defined as “conduct which causes a temporary or permanent state of mental anguish.”

If you know what that is, please drop us a line.

This new law is riddled with free speech problems. It is government censorship of speech that powerful people do not want to hear. Any person with a criminal conviction, whether he is currently incarcerated or was released years or decades earlier, would have his ability to speak publicly about his experience, the criminal justice system, or any unknown thing effectively chilled. Why speak up when there is a chance you’ll be hauled into civil court?

On numerous occasions, people with criminal convictions have spoken at press conferences and have testified at hearings at the state capitol. This new law chills that type of advocacy. If this law had been in effect a few years ago, would we know the story of Stacey Torrance, who is serving life-without-parole? Stacey was 14 when he participated in a robbery that ended in murder. The victim was killed 24 hours after Stacey left the scene of the robbery.

Would we know the story of Edwin Desamour, who at 16 faced the death penalty, was ultimately convicted of third-degree homicide, and served eight and a half years in prison? After his release, Edwin helped found Men in Motion in the Community, or MIMIC, to work with at-risk boys in Philadelphia.

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What happens to the Pennsylvania Prison Society’s publication Graterfriends? The Prison Society offers inmates an outlet to write about their personal experiences and about public policy issues.

All of this valuable speech is potentially chilled by this new law.

The General Assembly passed this bill in record time after Mumia Abu-Jamal gave a recorded speech to 20 graduates of Goddard College in Vermont. In the speech, Abu-Jamal made no mention of the crime for which he was convicted, the shooting death of Philadelphia Police Officer Daniel Faulkner, and only briefly alludes to being on death row. You can read or listen to the speech here.

A reporter asked me the other day if it is difficult advocating for the rights of people who are deeply disliked. I replied that we wouldn’t need the First Amendment if we only allowed popular speech. The right to free speech exists to ensure that even unpopular ideas or unpopular people are heard.

The answer to speech you don’t like is more speech to counter it, not government censorship. We look forward to discussing the First Amendment with the commonwealth in a court of law.