Court: Prisons Can Ignore Hunger Strikers' “Do Not Resuscitate" Directives

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Earlier this week a federal judge gave the California Department of Corrections (CDCR) permission to force-feed some of the inmates who are still participating in a hunger strike, 45 days after it began. Prisoners across a number of the state’s jails are protesting indefinite solitary confinement policies they say amount to “human torture.”

When the hunger strike began on July 8th it included close to 30,000 prisoners across 24 California prisons. As of Aug. 20, there were 94 inmates on a hunger strike; 45 have been on a hunger strike continuously since July 8.

Prison officials needed court permission to start the mandatory nourishment, because California state law prohibits force-feedings for prisoners who have signed medical orders asking not to be resuscitated in the event they lose consciousness or experience heart failures.

The CDCR argued that some “inmates may be or have been coerced into participating in the hunger strike." U.S. District Judge Thelton Henderson gave the prison officials the authority to disregard the prisoners’ “do not resuscitate" directives.

Defenders of the hunger strike say the CDCR’s logic doesn’t wash. “The strike started with 30,000 prisoners and is down to a few hundred. If people were being forced to stay on, they don’t seem to be complying,” read a statement from the Prisoner Hunger Strike Coalition (PHSC).

Prisoner advocates say inmates held in indefinite isolation in California are confined for 22-24 hours a day in small, often windowless cells, and are deprived of meaningful human contact. Hundreds have been held in ‘Security Housing Units’ (SHU) for more than 10 years, according to Amnesty International.

The United Nations has found that just 15 days in solitary confinement violates human rights standards and can do irreparable mental damage to a person. “This [court] order violates all international laws and standards and gives the medical director of each prison authority to violate human rights laws instead of reasonably negotiating with prisoners,” said Claude Marks of PHCS.

If the state employs force-feeding, it’s most likely to be done by pumping nutrient-enriched fluids into the bloodstreams of unconscious inmates, Dr. Steven Tharratt, director of medical services for the federal official who oversees medical care for California's prisons, told The Associated Press.

"It's not really a forced re-feeding at that point," Tharratt said. "It doesn't evoke images of Guantanamo Bay or anything like that. It's actually a totally different setting."

Update 3:51pm EST August 22, 2013:

Fusion spoke to Joyce Hayhoe, a spokeswoman for the prison medical office, for further clarification.

The court order only affects a small number of inmates participating in the hunger strike who signed the 'do not resuscitate' directives when the hunger strike began in July 8, 2013, according to Hayhoe, who is the communication director California Correctional Health Care Services, which is run by a court-appointed receiver. Inmates who had existing agreements before the hunger strike will not be affected.

Hayhoe confirmed the first option for the assisted feeding method would be intravenously. The "Guantanamo style" force-feeding method, which involves inserting tubes that go down to the inmate's stomach, would only be used in an extreme case where IV infusions have not worked and the inmate would not be conscious during the procedure.

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