Mumia Abu-Jamal’s health emergency: Interview with Dr. Ricardo Alvarez

March 15, 2021

Mumia Abu-Jamal, the internationally renowned journalist, Pennsylvania prison inmate and former Black Panther widely considered to be a political prisoner, is now experiencing a health emergency. A Feb. 27 call from Mumia alerted supporters who immediately began a campaign to telephone Pennsylvania Secretary of Corrections John Wetzl, Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner and Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf. This succeeded in having Abu-Jamal taken to an outside hospital where he received four days of treatment.

The following interview with Abu-Jamal’s medical consultant, Dr. Ricardo Alvarez, was originally printed March 14 in The Jamal Journal, published by the uncompromising International Concerned Family and Friends of Mumia Abu-Jamal. 

The 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.” More information at

Mumia Abu-Jamal

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. I believe Mumia seeks to help improve the conditions of ALL prisoners. We saw this with the example of [Mumia’s fight for] 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.

JJ: Can you please tell us about Mumia’s COVID diagnosis?

RA: 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, Professor of Medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, director of the Amend: Changing Correctional Culture Program and one of the nation’s 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.

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. Of older people, at least 70%  have 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.

JJ: Then there is Mumia’s congestive heart failure.

RA: 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.

Congestive heart failure is a serious disease with 50% mortality in five years in the best of circumstances. There is 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 and 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 weight daily and eat well with low-salt diets. Mumia’s diet will always be limited by the poor quality of prison food that is contracted out to major food service corporations.

Those with 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 restraint.” [Limbs of a person in a four–point restraint are chained to the four corners of a bed frame, with the person fixed in a spread-eagle position, unable to move.]

Prisoners are going to think twice about what threshold they will use to seek medical care when they are denied compassionate conditions of hospitalization.

JJ: The liver cirrhosis?

RA: Mumia needs freedom for his liver cirrhosis. Again, we do not have the full records to determine if he is getting 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 his cirrhosis was caused by the unnecessary delay in treatment that resulted from [inadequate prison] Hep C treatment protocols. That has been proven in the courts. Mumia’s legal case to force the PA DOC to give him treatment consistent with current [medical] guidelines has paved the way for other inmates to get effective but expensive antiviral 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.

JJ: What about his skin condition?

RA: 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.

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 needed, 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.

Please sign the petition demanding Abu-Jamal’s release due to overwhelming evidence of police, prosecutorial and judicial misconduct that has forever destroyed the legitimacy of Abu-Jamal’s 1982 conviction: