Cali Prisons Can Force Feed Prisoners Despite DNR Directives

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By Gabriella Khorasanee, JD on August 23, 2013 12:55 PM

The California prison system can't seem to stay out of the news -- or controversy -- for that matter. Earlier this month the Supreme Court denied California Governor Jerry Brown's application to stay a court order requiring California to reduce its prison population. And one month prior, we saw the initiation of a hunger strike ("Massive Hunger Strike").

On July 8, 2013, the Massive Hunger Strike was started, by prisoners in California prisons, protesting the prolonged use of solitary confinement and the controversial "debriefing policy" where prisoners must provide officials with gang-related information in order to get out of solitary. A policy, which according to Reuters, has been condemned by Amnesty International, as well as other human rights groups. What started out as a Massive Hunger Strike with over 12,000 prisoners, has now dwindled to about 129 inmates, with 69 having participated from the beginning.

Taking a proactive approach, counsel for both prisoners and prison officials made a joint request to the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California to authorize refeeding of prisoners under certain conditions. Citing "no imminent need" for forced feeding, "Joyce Hayhoe, a spokeswoman for the federal receiver in charge of medical care in the prisons, said authorities had sought the feeding order as a precaution to treat inmates who may experience illness brought on by extreme hunger," reports Reuters. She noted that with some prisoners on a hunger strike for over 40 days, the need to force feed "could change rather quickly," according to Reuters.

Judge Thelton E. Henderson issued an order earlier this week clarifying the situation for prisoners and prison officials trying to balance "inmate-patient autonomy" with "security and safety concerns." Inmates that are "at risk of near-term death or great bodily injury," and have not "executed a valid 'do not resuscitate' ["DNR"] directive", may be force fed.

Citing prison officials' fear that inmates were coerced into signing DNRs, the Judge noted that a DNR would not be deemed valid if signed as a result of coercion or if it was "executed by a participant in the hunger strike at or near the beginning of or during the strike." This order applies only to the Massive Hunger Strike, and not to any other future strikes.

Force feeding has been in the public eye a lot lately, especially with regard to prisoners at Guantanamo, reports NPR. Citing an op-ed from The New England Journal of Medicine, NPR noted that some people consider the practice "medically unethical." With growing sentiments against force feeding, one has to wonder how far this practice will go. Hopefully, the hunger strike will end soon and there will be no use for this order.

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