California to Start Force-Feeding Hunger Striking Prisoners

In the spring of 2011, a revolution started within the notorious Special Housing Unit (SHU) of Pelican Bay State Prison in California. Prisoners living in solitary confinement and enduring harsh conditions including limited access to fresh air, health care, contact with the outside, palatable food and more, often for years or decades, decided they had reached their breaking point. They set out to engineer a series of rolling hunger strikes that quickly spread across the state to other prisons and provoked solidarity across the United States from prisoner rights advocates and reformers.

Two years later, many of the demands made by the prisoners still haven’t been met, and the prison system seems reluctant to meet the hunger strikers halfway, even in the wake of a possible suicide by a prominent hunger striker. Instead, the state has brought out the ultimate weapon: force-feeding.

From suffragettes to Guantanamo, force-feeding has been used as a tool to both crush hunger strikes and intimidate members of social movements. It can be deeply humiliating, not to mention potentially dangerous if not done with care, and groups like the New England Journal of Medicine argue it’s a violation of medical ethics to force a patient to eat against her will. In the wake of revelations about abusive force-feeding at Guantanamo, some argue that the practice can constitute torture. It definitely violates international law, and, in the United States, it’s also a violation of Constitutional rights: going on a hunger strike is an exercise of free speech.

The State argues that it needs to be able to provide prisoners with emergency nutrition to prevent death. It claims that some prisoners may have been intimidated into participation in the hunger strike, and could be putting themselves in critical medical danger because of pressure from other prison residents; paradoxically, California officials insist that gang members are running the hunger strike, while insisting that the SHU needs to be used to minimize the influence of gang members by keeping them isolated from the general population. Which is it, California?

“Refeeding,” as force-feeding is politely called, would only be used in a last resort, the state assures advocates. As some prisoners approach 60-70 days without nutrition, they run the risk of serious internal organ damage, eventually leading to heart failure. Even if prisoners resume eating, they will experience life-long health problems including heart arrhythmias, impaired kidney function and other issues.┬áProlonged periods without nutrition also lead to impaired cognition, making it difficult for prisoners to take an active role in their medical care.

Which is why many prisoners actually made arrangements for this eventuality before they went on hunger strike, or in the early days of their participation. They signed do not resuscitate orders mandating that in the event of a major cardiac event or other medical emergency, they be allowed to die. As with civilians, these orders would have involved meeting with a physician, discussing the implications of the order and having the physician confirm that the prisoner was making a choice out of free will, without coercion. Force-feeding directly contradicts a DNR, which is precisely why patients in the civilian world have the right to choose to withdraw from food and potentially water as well if they want to die peacefully in the end stages of terminal illness.

Thus, not only would force-feeding violate the civil rights of prisoners, it would also violate their medical rights. While prisoner rights are restricted (they cannot participate in elections, for example), they do retain some fundamental human rights, just as all of us do. These include the right to make active decisions about medical care as long as they are in a competent state to do so, and to engage in political speech, two things the state wishes to deny California prisoners by forcing them to eat.

While few of these prisoners and their loved ones want to force a political point with death by hunger strike, some are willing to make this sacrifice. The state’s plans to take that decision out of their hands is reflective of a widespread belief that prisoners don’t deserve access to the same rights as other members of society, and it’s chilling. If people on a hunger strike can be force-fed, a violent and obvious violation of civil rights, what else can the state do?

Photo Credit: Thinkstock


Past Member
lynda l4 years ago

Empathy for ALL

Duane B.
.4 years ago

Thank you for sharing.

Stanley R.
Stanley R4 years ago

This is atrocious and against human rights and human dignity. What have we descended into?

JL A4 years ago

one more example of CDCR ignoring issues of rights related to health care which began with the Madrid federal Court decision in the early 1990's

Diane L.
Diane L4 years ago

Well, Robynne, it's special treatment if they are demanding more than they are getting, which is far more than many of the average LAW ABIDING citizen in this country gets without struggling to provide. You obviously have internet access, and so do I, but many don't. Many don't have electricity, heat or even a roof over their heads, let alone 3 square meals a day, cooked and served to them. Many don't have even the basic healthcare, and unless they go to the E.R. and get whatever they need to save their lives at taxpayers' expense. Of course, we, the taxpayers are paying for the care given to inmates as well. I don't like knowing that my money has gone to offer decent food to them and when they don't want it, then even further measures will be used to keep them alive. If they want to starve, let 'em.

I never mentioned anyone with a "sex change" situation, did I? I guess I'm still angry over the violent death of a prison guard at one of the state penitentiaries here, by an inmate already serving 3 life sentences, but he was in a chapel unshackled and strangled his prison guard. Yeah, nice guy, so undeserving of being there.

Robynne W.
Robynne W4 years ago

Thank you: Bryna P, Linda F, Judy M, S.D., Katie K, M.Q., John C, Max P, Anne M, KarenandEd, Sarah M, John B, Leslea H, Bill E, Kimberlee W, Laurie D, Sonali G, Ken W, Mari S, Veronica N, Sue H and Kanako. You all have shown empathy for ALL and/or tried to have an actual discussion of points and facts of this particular situation. This is a very divisive issue and I welcome true discussion and debate.

Robynne W.
Robynne W4 years ago

@Stacey M...did you know that the majority of those in prison are NOT rapists and murderers? Most are not violent or psychopaths.

@Diane L...these PEOPLE are not asking for any 'special' treatment - just HUMANE treatment. I have no idea what "perks" and "benefits" you think prisoners are getting that we on the outside don't get. The majority of prisoners do not have access to the internet and the 'library' is very dated. The 'health care' they usually get is minimal first aid (those sex-change stories are NOT the norm) and many must wait days to weeks to see an actual doctor.

Robynne W.
Robynne W4 years ago

Many of you commenting here seem to have absolutely no sense of decency.

S.D. said it best so far. "The issue is that being able to make the decision to refuse medical treatment or food (whilst of sound mind) is a fundamental human right and a medical right to which prisoners are, morally and by law (American constitutional law and international law), still entitled."

Kanako Ishiyama
Kanako I4 years ago

Human rights are laws. All humans are entitled to it regardless f the crimes they committed. As long as a country ratified the declaration of Human Rights and other relevant conventions or treaties, it has obligation to protect the respective HR principles. Whether people like or not is another issue.

Patricia H.
Patricia H.4 years ago

Thanks for posting