SCRANTON, Pa. -- Former death row inmate Mumia Abu-Jamal, who accuses prison officials of improper medical care, told a federal judge Friday that he suffered painful itching and swelling from a rash that covered most of his body for several months.
Abu-Jamal testified by video hookup from a state prison in his lawsuit that alleges prison officials and doctors have systematically denied him proper care for maladies ranging from hepatitis C to high blood sugar.
Abu-Jamal said the itching "seemed to get worse and worse no matter what cream or drug or medication was prescribed. Nothing eased or cured the problem." He said he scratched until he was bloody.
He also told the judge about an episode in which he fell unconscious and was rushed to the hospital in diabetic shock.
"They have refused to treat it and he has suffered pain and a threat to his very life out of that failure to treat," his lawyer Robert Boyle told the judge.
Laura J. Neal, an attorney for the state Department of Corrections, said Abu-Jamal's skin condition is improving. She said the case boils down to whether Abu-Jamal is entitled to "the very best form of treatment right now for hepatitis C." His life is not at imminent risk from the disease, she said.
U.S. District Judge Robert Mariani rejected the state's argument earlier Friday that the lawsuit should be dismissed because Abu-Jamal failed to exhaust his administrative appeals.
Abu-Jamal, 61, is a former Black Panther and radio journalist serving life in prison for the 1981 murder of white Philadelphia police Officer Daniel Faulkner. He was initially sent to death row, but a federal court threw out his death sentence in 2008, citing flawed jury instructions.
His conviction has been upheld through years of appeals, but he has gained international support for his claim that he's the victim of a racist justice system.
Abu-Jamal wants Mariani to order his jailers to allow him to be seen by a doctor of his choosing and to provide adequate treatment. He also is demanding monetary damages.
After spending time in the hospital earlier this year, Abu-Jamal's health has apparently improved. Suzanne Ross, a longtime supporter, wrote on the "Free Mumia" website that she visited him in late November and "he looked so healthy and radiant, so much like he used to, and he sounded so good," though she added he "still itches and still experiences pain."
Abu-Jamal's lawsuit said he was diagnosed with hepatitis C, a chronic blood-borne infection that gradually destroys the liver, in 2012. Eventually, he got an itchy rash over 70 percent of his body that his lawyers say is a complication of the disease. Prison officials have not adequately treated either his hepatitis or the rash, the suit said.
Prison doctors also failed to address a sudden spike in Abu-Jamal's blood sugar level in early March, and, weeks later, he lost consciousness and was rushed to the hospital in diabetic shock, he claims.
The suit asserts the prison is violating the Constitution's ban on cruel and unusual punishment by withholding appropriate medical care.
A federal magistrate ruled in September that Abu-Jamal had failed to show "immediate irreparable harm" and recommended that Mariani rule against him.