Force Feeding Prisoners Is OK: Criminal Law in California

At the start of this week, a US District Court Judge ruled that the State of California may administer food involuntarily to prisoners on a hunger strike.  There has been a protest unfolding in the jails of California against the solitary confinement elements of the prison management policy of the State.   Some prisoners had signed legal documents preventing them from being revived in the event of their loss of consciousness and it was not clear whether the law would allow doctors working for the State to forcibly administer nutrition to an unconscious prisoner.   The policy is aimed at preventing the formation of gangs inside the prisons.  It says that if the authorities suspect that an inmate is connected with a criminal organisation, they can be kept in conditions of almost total solitude.  It is also not the first time that this has happened.

Prison wardens have said that the protest is just a tactic from the criminal groups to try to embarrass the authorities into giving them greater freedoms inside the prison system.  However, a number of external sources of criticism have also emerged from international and domestic human rights and prison reform advocates.  The system of federal prisons is under enormous pressure from overcrowding with ten thousand prisoners due to be released by the end of the year due to a federal court order to this effect.  A number of the inmates have now not eaten for over 4 weeks resulting in their hospitalisation.  Before the decision of this judge, it was a policy of California not to revive a person if they slipped into unconsciousness as a result of self inflicted starvation.

The argument for the change in policy was raised because prison managers were concerned that coercion could be involved in the signing of the do not resuscitate orders.  Reports were circulating that gang leaders had been forcing gang members to go through with the protests and sign the documents.  Legal representation for those striking said that there was no evidence of this, a claim which was disputed by the legal representation for the State of California.  The case is also part of a broader campaign from prison rights organisations aiming to improve the medical conditions and overcrowding in the federal prison system.


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