Menus Subscribe Search
feeding-chair

The type of restraint chair used for feeding at Guantanamo Bay. (PHOTO: PUBLIC DOMAIN)

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

• July 12, 2013 • 5:01 PM

The type of restraint chair used for feeding at Guantanamo Bay. (PHOTO: PUBLIC DOMAIN)

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

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 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.

“It’s a little bit of bad press if you force-feed inmates. It’s a lot of bad press if you have a lot of protesting inmates and one of them dies.”

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’ 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.”


This post originally appeared on ProPublica, a Pacific Standard partner site.

Christie Thompson
Christie Thompson is an intern at ProPublica. She studied journalism at Northwestern University, and has written for The Nation, The Chicago Reporter, and TheAtlantic.com.

More From Christie Thompson

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

July 31 • 2:00 PM

A New York State of Fracking

Court cases. A governor’s moratorium. Pending health study. A quick guide to the state of fracking in New York.


July 31 • 11:17 AM

How California Could Power Itself Using Nothing but Renewables

We don’t need fossil fuels.


July 31 • 8:00 AM

Should Athletes Train Their Memories?

Sure, but it probably won’t help.


July 31 • 6:00 AM

Universal Basic Income: Something We Can All Agree on?

According to Almaz Zelleke, it’s not a crazy thought.


July 31 • 4:00 AM

Medical Dramas Produce Misinformed, Fatalistic Viewers

New research suggests TV doctor dramas leave viewers with skewed impressions of important health-related topics.


July 30 • 4:00 PM

Still the World’s Top Military Spender

Although declining in real terms, the United States’ military budget remains substantial and a huge drain on our public resources.



July 30 • 2:04 PM

The Rise of the Nuisance Flood

Minor floods are afflicting parts of Maryland nearly 10 times more often than was the case in the 1960s.


July 30 • 2:00 PM

The (Mostly Awful) Things You Learn After Investigating Unpaid Internships for a Year

Though the intern economy remains opaque, dialogue about the role of interns in the labor force—and protections they deserve—is beginning to take shape.


July 30 • 12:00 PM

Why Coffee Shortages Won’t Change the Price of Your Frappuccino

You’re so loyal to Starbucks—and the company knows it—that your daily serving of caffeine is already marked up beyond the reach of any fluctuations in supply.



July 30 • 10:00 AM

Having Difficult Conversations With Your Children

Why it’s necessary, and how to do it.


July 30 • 8:00 AM

How to Make a Convincing Sci-Fi Movie on a Tight Budget

Coherence is a good movie, and its initial shoot cost about the same amount of money as a used Prius.


July 30 • 6:00 AM

Are You Really as Happy as You Say You Are?

Researchers find a universal positivity bias in the way we talk, tweet, and write.


July 30 • 4:00 AM

The Declining Wage Gap for Gay Men

New research finds gay men in America are rapidly catching up with straight married men in terms of wages.


July 30 • 2:00 AM

LeBron James Migration: Big Chef Seeking Small Pond

The King’s return to Cleveland is a symbol for the dramatic shift in domestic as well as international migration.


July 29 • 4:00 PM

Are Children Seeking Refuge Turning More Americans Against Undocumented Immigrants?

A look at Pew Research Center survey data collected in February and July of this year.


July 29 • 2:00 PM

Under Water: The EPA’s Ongoing Struggle to Combat Pollution

Frustration and inaction color efforts to enforce the Clean Water Act.


July 29 • 12:40 PM

America’s Streams Are Awash With Pesticides Banned in Europe

You may have never heard of clothianidin, but it’s probably in your local river.


July 29 • 12:00 PM

Mining Your Genetic Data for Profit: The Dark Side of Biobanking

One woman’s personal story raises deep questions about the stark limits of current controls in a nascent industry at the very edge of the frontier of humans and technology.


July 29 • 11:23 AM

Where Should You Go to College?


July 29 • 10:29 AM

How Textbooks Have Changed the Face of War

War is more personal, less glorious, and more hellish in modern textbooks than in the past. But there’s still room for improvement.


July 29 • 10:00 AM

The Monolingual American: Why Are Those Outside of the U.S. Encouraging It?

If you are an American trying to learn German in a large German town or city, you will mostly hear English in return, even when you give sprechen your best shot.


July 29 • 8:00 AM

The Elusive Link Between Casinos and Crime

With a study of the impact of Philadelphia’s SugarHouse Casino, a heated debate gets fresh ammunition.


July 29 • 6:00 AM

What Are the Benefits of Locking Yourself in a Tank and Floating in Room-Temperature Saltwater?

After three sessions in an isolation tank, the answer’s still not quite clear.


Follow us


Subscribe Now

The Rise of the Nuisance Flood

Minor floods are afflicting parts of Maryland nearly 10 times more often than was the case in the 1960s.

America’s Streams Are Awash With Pesticides Banned in Europe

You may have never heard of clothianidin, but it's probably in your local river.

How Textbooks Have Changed the Face of War

War is more personal, less glorious, and more hellish in modern textbooks than in the past. But there’s still room for improvement.

NASA Could Build Entire Spacecrafts in Space Using 3-D Printers

This year NASA will experiment with 3-D printing small objects in space. That could mark the beginning of a gravity-free manufacturing revolution.

The Big One

One in two full-time American fast-food workers' families are enrolled in public assistance programs, at a cost of $7 billion per year. July/August 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.