Journalism in the Public Interest

California Hunger Strike Raises Issue of Force-Feeding on U.S. Soil

Guantanamo Bay isn’t the only place the U.S. has force-fed prisoners.


A chair used to restrain and force-feed hunger striking detainees at Guantanamo Bay. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

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 chief of the state’s prison system said he planned to seek court permission to force-feed inmates. (The strike ended before he did so.)

As lawmakers call for an end to the force-feeding of Guantanamo detainees, the California strike serves as a reminder: inmates on U.S. soil can ultimately be given the same treatment.

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 Joyce Hayhoe, Director of Legislation for the California Correctional Health Care Services.

But in 2011, the former head of California prisons said he thought those prohibitions against force-feeding could be overruled with a court’s approval. To do so, the Corrections Department would have to prove that force-feeding was in the state’s interest to maintain a safe prison environment for other inmates.

The department never actually sought court permission, as officials agreed to meet with inmates and said they were reviewing the state’s solitary confinement policy. The two strikes in 2011 ended after three weeks.

The prison system did revise its solitary confinement policies in March, but inmates now striking say the changes do nothing to limit the length of solitary confinement sentences, which can continue indefinitely. Inmates are also calling for an end to “group punishment,” such as race-based lockdowns that restrict an entire race of inmates for one prisoner’s violation. The California Corrections Department is facing federal lawsuits over both practices.

“At this point, it is clear to us that the [Corrections Department] has no intention of implementing the substantive policy changes that were agreed to fifteen or sixteen months ago,” organizers said in a press release, announcing plans to renew the strike.  

Hunger strikers at Pelican Bay prison have released a list of five demands, which inmates in other prisons have expanded.

Corrections officials have announced that inmates will face consequences for participating in the strike, ranging from being denied family visits to being put in solitary confinement. “It is against state law to participate in disturbances such as mass hunger strikes,” said corrections spokesperson Jeffrey Callison. “Eventually participants will be issued rule violation reports.”

Dolores Canales’s son, an inmate at Pelican Bay prison, is striking for the third time in two years. She is worried prison officials may be less willing to work with inmates this time around. “They’re going to let them go God only knows how long without eating,” she said.

Canales has lead efforts to organize other family members in support of the strike. She, like many family members she knows, has avoided discussing force-feeding with her son. “I don’t want to know,” she said. “If it were up to me I would say do whatever it takes to have him live.”

Isaac Ontiveros, a spokesperson with the Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity Network, hopes the size of the strike will push corrections officials to consider inmates’ demands, and make it harder to crack down on the protest.

As far as force-feeding, “It doesn’t need to come to that,” Ontiveros said. Prison officials “can end this very, very simply.”

Byron Winchell

July 12, 2013, 4:27 p.m.

Uh, what is the prisoner’s rights advocates position on allowing the convict to starve?  Has California violated a duty of care when this should happen?

Prison officials should not interfere. This is a perfect solution to the prison overcrowding; in addition, it will save tax payers millions that can be diverted to education and other community development programs.

Marsha Steinberg

July 13, 2013, 4:51 a.m.

Israel and the US, 2 peas in an American taxpayer pod

It must be tough for the inmates; I used to LOVE hamburger night!!

Someone needs to explain to me how hungry prisoners threaten the safety and security of the prison.

And why the “prison”?  Not the other prisoners or the guards, but the physical location?  Or are we talking about the corporate or government entity, such that bad publicity is considered endangering “the prison”?  The latter seems to account for a lot of the battle against whistleblowers, where no physical harm can be authenticated, but everybody’s worried about the truth destroying trust or reducing business.

Interesting how quick people are to say let them starve to death or shove the tube up their noses ASAP.  You’d think that, in a country that enshrines human rights in the Constitution (the Eighth Amendment, a ban on cruel and unusual punishment), someone might be inclined to question whether that’s being adhered to.

Or hey, take the other approach.  I don’t publish a newspaper, so maybe we should wipe out the freedom of the press, right?

John. If you want the “social welfare” answer, hungry people make the atmosphere worse for the prison community. School, work, and other “rehabilitative” things are hampered when a institution-wide hunger strike takes place. Further, many of these guys want to eat, but prison politics compels them to not eat (usually these choices are made by the inmates with high prison-political clout—lifers, gang leaders, etc.). So, the safety and security of the institution is threatened by hunger strikes.

The political answer is more absurd. Prison authorities simply want their budgets expanded—if prisoners die, you’d have more public outcry, and probably, politicians wouldn’t be able to take their side so easily.

I believe the lesser of the 2 evils (force-feeding or letting them kill themselves) would be force-feeding. Question is: how can we avoid this false dichotomy in the future?

Malcolm, thanks.  I hadn’t thought about the former issue.  I agree, otherwise (though force-feeding someone pressured into not eating seems like something even Kafka would’ve thought was weird).  The point shouldn’t be how to handle it when it happens, because things are already bad by that point.

Byron Winchell

July 16, 2013, 10:36 a.m.

I got an idea!  Steak nite!  “All prisoners, BBQ in the exercise yard.”

It’s not the state or the prison’s fault if someone chooses not to eat the food provided.  If any of them actually starve, it will be their own choice, though I doubt it will come to that.  They wouldn’t be in the situation they are if they had even a modicum of discipline or self-control.

Wasting the time and effort to force feed them is insane—I’m sure it would cost even more than the outlandish amount taxpayers now pay to incarcerate them.  From a purely economic point of view, if any of them starve themselves to death, it’s a good thing.  Hell, if it were up to me, I’d provide every cell with a hangman’s rope and a stool to kick from under one’s feet, and let it be their choice.

I do hope the prison system can devise a plan to redistribute the unused food to poor people (you know, folks who have done nothing wrong, and thus aren’t entitled to three-hots-and-a-cot) who would put it to good use.

I see the stark and brutal nature of our society in the force feeding of these prisoners and our prison system at large. Ignorant comments mocking this situation only reinforce how easily we are made to deny the humanity of others, regardless of crimes real or perceived. Our prisons reflect our society, they lay it bare and reveal the absence of compassion, forgiveness or love.

It’s astonishing to see how easily those outside of the prison walls discount the humanity of those who are incarcerated. The majority of people in prison have committed non-violent crimes. They can be our family, our neighbors, our friends… they are us and it could be you.

Why not recognize that anyone can be redeemed and that no one should be made to suffer the conditions of the Prison Industrial Complex in America without the love, support and understanding of those on the outside lest we continue to re-create a damaged and broken society through the process of mass incarceration, increasingly for profit.

Marsha Steinberg

July 21, 2013, 7:23 a.m.

I agree with Slender

I agree as well.

Some of the comments are really disgusting. Some people lack the most basic level of empathy. It’s really ugly and quite anti social.

I’d suggest saving some of that empathy for the victims of the crimes.  Those guys in Pelican Bay weren’t sent there for singing too loudly in church.  Incarceration itself is anti-social if you include yourself amongst the society of sociopaths.

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