Federal Judge: Prison Officials Are Allowed To Force-Feed Inmates On Hunger Strike

| by Jonathan Wolfe
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A California judge has ordered that state prison officials are allowed to force-feed inmates that have fallen sick during the hunger strike occurring across the state’s prison facilities. The ruling permits officials to force-feed an inmate even if they have signed a Do Not Resuscitate (DNR) order.

The hunger strike began on July 8th of this year. Inmates are protesting the long-term holding of gang-affiliated inmates Security Housing Units. Inmates are held in Security Housing Units either for crimes they committed while in prison or if they are validated as leaders of a prison gang. Soon after the hunger strike began, over 33,000 inmates were participating. That number has now dropped significantly, but 69 inmates have reportedly still not accepted any food since the strike began.

The order was given by U.S. District Judge Thelton E. Henderson amid concerns that prison gang members were forcing many inmates into participating in the hunger strike and signing DNR orders. Prison officials are also concerned that many inmates without DNR orders may become ill to the point where they cannot reasonably consent to or refuse medical attention.

“Patients have a right to refuse medical treatment. They also have a right to refuse food," said Joyce Hayhoe, a spokeswoman for the state prison system. But, Hayhoe says, “If an inmate gets to the point where he can't tell us what his wishes are, for instance if he's found unresponsive in his cell, and we don't have a DNR, we're going to get nourishment into him. That's what doctors do. They're going to follow their medical ethics.”  

In recent days, inmates participating in the hunger strike have been hospitalized for dehydration, cramping, vomiting, diarrhea, dizziness and lightheadedness.

A lawyer for several inmates participating in the strike disagrees with the ruling, saying that prison officials are overstating the problem of inmates being coerced into signing DNR orders.

“They’re exaggerating this,” attorney Carol Strickman said. “As much as I don't want to see anybody die, some people were choosing to sign those requests and some were not."

Strickman is not alone in her opinion. Jules Lobel, an attorney representing 10 inmates suing the state prison system over the prolonged imprisonment of inmates in solitaty confinement, agrees.

“Force-feeding violates international law to the extent that it involves somebody who doesn't give their consent," she said. 

Sources: Huffington Post, NBC News