I got to think about this a bit this week when I got a phone call from a reporter from the Examiner, resulting in this story. The man in question is not taking part in the Pelican Bay solidarity hunger strike, and apparently this is the last in a long series of hunger strikes he has undetaken individually. I am unclear on the extent to which hospital personnel felt comfortable force-feeding him, but apparently the sheriff is seeking a court order to do so.
Apparently, there is no clear answer as to whether, legally, hospital personnel may force-feed a hunger-striking inmate, and under which conditions. This has come up in the context of a large-scale hunger strike in Ireland in 1981, and later in the context of Guantanamo in 2005. A 2007 note by Tracey Ohm provides a concise summary of the law in the matter. In the early 1980s, the courts had ruled that the state had no right to intervene with a hunger-striking inmate, and it could allow him/her to starve him/herself to death; however, just a few years later the court tried to draw a distinction between a strike aimed at death and a strike aimed at a manipulation of the correctional system, with a right to intervene in the latter. Ohm suggests that correctional institutions adopt a four-part standardized test, based on the principles in Turner v. Safley (1987):
- A "valid, rational connection" between the prison regulation and the legitimate governmental interest put forward to justify it;
- the existence of "alternative means of exercising the right that remain open to prison inmates";
- the impact accommodation of the asserted constitutional right will have on guards and other inmates, and on the allocation of prison resources generally; and
- the absence of ready alternatives is evidence of the reasonableness of a prison regulation.