A Chronically Lethal System
Mumia’s skin disease and mass incarceration as lethal threat
Mumia Abu-Jamal’s fight today for his physical health exposes the pervasive inhumanity of U.S. mass incarceration’s very nature. It is a lethal system.
Abu-Jamal is currently incarcerated in a Frackville, Pennsylvania state prison, serving a Life Without Possibility of Parole sentence (LWOPP) that began after nearly 30 years on death row for a death sentence that courts ruled unconstitutional in 2011.
But Abu-Jamal’s imprisoned body is now confined in another way. He is encased from head-to-toe by a skin disease that has remained undiagnosed since January. Dr. Johanna Fernandez, Fulbright Scholar and historian at Baruch College/CUNY, who has visited Abu-Jamal regularly for over a decade saw him this past Saturday, June 13, and her report includes these descriptive phrases:
- A leather patch now covers Abu-Jamal’s whole body
- He is told his hemoglobin levels have been going down
- His skin . . . is “really, really dark and leathery” from head to toe
- His face seemed a bit swollen and darker that I’ve ever seen it
- Two finger tips have visibly cracked lesions that look painful
- He still has open lesions on his legs
- His feet and toes were very swollen
- Prison infirmary doctors tell Abu-Jamal, “when the body is healing itself it releases fluid”
- Nurses and specialists at the nearby Geisinger Medical Center, where Abu-Jamal received professional and humane treatment for a brief time in May, report they “have never seen a case like this before”
Abu-Jamal’s tightening and painful leather encasement of his body is a kind of prison within the prison for him. Indeed, for nearly all the confined, especially for the sick and elderly, the chronic systems of medical mistreatment in U.S. prisons forge another imprisoning sphere, one of sickness, desperation and dying.
Moreover, stunningly, no diagnosis for this condition has been given to Abu-Jamal, his family or attorneys. For six long months, the prison has proven incapable of diagnosing this serious attack on Abu-Jamal’s health. Along with the skin disease, he developed diabetes triggered by prison doctors’ experimental application of steroidal cream. Despite documented, elevated levels of blood sugar in the prison infirmary, doctors there did nothing to address the fatally high blood sugar spikes until he collapsed and went into diabetic shock. His blood sugar registered at 779, accompanied also by a catastrophically high sodium level.
Not surprisingly, though, the prison has been relentless in keeping Abu-Jamal’s weakened body in custody. Only national and international advocacy successfully forced his transport from his guarded prison infirmary to outside medical centers. Even then, he was kept hidden from family, friends and lawyers. He was monitored 24/7 by six prison guards while at the hospital, where he also was kept shackled to his bed, even during medical testing.
In short, prisons prioritize security procedures over medical care. They know no other way.
This is mass incarceration’s war on life and health. University of California law professor Jonathan Simon writes in his 2014 book, Mass Incarceration on Trial,
“…the very things that define mass incarceration as a distinctive mode of punishment—its scale, its categorical nature, and its prioritization of custody over reform or rehabilitation—all predict that intensified health crises will be an inherent problem.”
Simon’s words are about California, a state where even the courts now have found persistently incompetent medical care to be a form of torture and a violation of the Eighth Amendment against “cruel and unusual punishment.” Simon emphasizes that in California “litigation had begun for the first time to define mass incarceration as the source of unconstitutional conditions….”
Any who may have desired Abu-Jamal silenced and dead—and Pennsylvania officials have made no secret about the strength of this desire—have only to wait upon the prison system to do its work. Mass incarceration kills. This is not death by old age. Mass incarceration makes one “elderly,” unduly vulnerable to disease and debilitation. It is the manufacture of premature high-risk aging. Analysts argue that by age 55 one should be categorized as “elderly” in prison—many lower that age to 50 for all who are incarcerated more than ten years. The ACLU’s in-depth analysis “The Mass Incarceration of the Elderly” calculates that by 2030 the number of those 55 and over in U.S. prisons will skyrocket to over 400,000, this being a 4,400 percent increase in elderly prisoners since 1981 when mass incarceration rates began to rise exponentially.
This chronically lethal system, though, also includes prison guards who assume their own right to torture and kill prisoners. They have been known to intentionally handle patients roughly. Bureau of Justice statistics report that prison guards and staff are responsible for as much as half of sexual assaults in prison. Court-mandated studies document “systematic hostility of correctional officers to medical treatment for prisoners and to those who provide it.” Prisons themselves are lethal cultures, simmering with a tension that Columbia University Law Professor Robert Ferguson describes in his book, Inferno, as always prone to violence, a violence that guards come to desire. Prison personnel can kill for various reasons, as in Florida of 2014 where there occurred murders of 346 prisoners by law enforcement and prison guard personnel.
The New York Times ended a 2014 editorial, “The American experiment in mass incarceration has been a moral, legal, social, and economic disaster. It cannot end soon enough.”
But no one has written about precisely these matters for so long and as directly, eloquently and for so diverse a set of audiences as has Abu-Jamal himself. Across eight books—a new one being published just this year1—and thousands of essays in venues as diverse as Street News, Forbes, and the Yale Law Journal, Abu-Jamal has opened the public’s eyes to the multiple ways of the U.S. killing state.
It is Abu-Jamal’s powers of pen and voice for exposing the state’s ways of death and torture, and for a mass readership among the poor and voiceless, that has driven U.S. officials to seek his death for decades—first by execution, and then, failing that, now by the prison system’s own chronic modes of lethal assault. Abu-Jamal is an effective catalyst for change because he is marked as a “public enemy number one” figure by the U.S. killing state while remaining a catalyst for a wide-array of social movements against the state’s structural violence.
The people for whom Abu-Jamal writes have kept him alive. Winning his release now would be a public event of value to any justice-loving people. Abu-Jamal will need well deserved rest and restoration. But with his release must come also a coalition of social movement work to end mass incarceration. This means ending its torture of hundreds-of-thousands of elderly in its clutches. It means ending the warehousing of the mentally ill, more of whom are in jails and prisons than reside in state psychiatric care facilities. It requires terminating the brutal culture of death that mass incarceration institutionalizes. In short, it is time to dismantle the U.S. killing state that uses its prison system to control and terrorize anyone whose revolutionary work means building truly alternative institutions that can safeguard a comprehensive freedom, especially for the long colonized, exploited Black and Brown communities and for the growing numbers of the poor today.
This all can begin with the release of Mumia Abu-Jamal today.
Mark Lewis Taylor is Maxwell Upson Professor of Theology and Culture, Princeton Theological Seminary and a core member of the Educators for Mumia Abu-Jamal team.
—Counterpunch, Weekend Edition, June 19-21, 2015
1 Mumia Abu-Jamal
Writing on the Wall
Selected prison writings of Mumia Abu-Jamal
(City Lights, 2015)