More than 12,400 inmates across California have been fasting since Monday, to protest solitary confinement and call for improved prison conditions. The strike, involving roughly two-thirds of the state’s prisons, is one of the largest in California history.
So far no prisoners have been force-fed, and the Corrections Department says they have no current plans to do so. “Hopefully no one will get to that point,” said a spokesperson for California’s corrections department. During a similar strike in 2011, the said he planned to seek court permission to force-feed inmates. (The strike ended before he did so.)
While there is no national data available on the prevalence of force-feeding in U.S. prisons, a number of cases have been documented in recent years, largely after appeals to stop the process were rejected by state courts. The courts have typically ruled that prisons can force-feed an inmate without their consent if it’s needed to maintain the safety and security of the prison.
Connecticut inmate William Coleman, who is hunger striking over what he says was a wrongful conviction, has been force-fed since 2008. The Connecticut Supreme Court has sided with prison officials, who said that Coleman’s strike could threaten the prison’s security and lead to copycat strikes.
More recently, New York inmate Leroy Dorsey was denied the right to refuse feeding in May, when the New York Court of Appeals ruled the prison could continue to restrain and feed him with nasogastric tubes.
Bioethicist Dr. Jacob Appel, who opposes the practice, says he believes that court rulings have resulted in more prisons turning to force-feeding in response to hunger strikes. “It’s a little bit of bad press if you force-feed inmates,” he said. “It’s a lot of bad press if you have a lot of protesting inmates and one of them dies.”
California is one of only three states whose courts have ruled against force-feeding. In 1993, the state Supreme Court ruled that one a paralyzed inmate had the right to “decline life-sustaining treatment, even if to do so will cause or hasten death.”
But the judges in that case noted that prisons could use force-feeding if a hunger strike was a threat to order in the prison and the safety of other inmates. “We do not preclude prison authorities from establishing the need to override an inmate's choice to decline medical intervention,” the judges wrote.
California prison policy says that inmates can refuse medical treatment as long as they’re conscious and able to do so. Prisoners can also sign statements that say they cannot be administered treatment, regardless of their condition. “Force-feeding inmates is not part of our medical protocol,” said …read more