Prison Law Blog

Sara Mayeux

Posts Tagged ‘pelican bay

Do Prisoners Have a Right to Hunger Strike?

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With the California prison hunger strike continuing into its second week and now involving thousands of inmates statewide, I thought I’d reprise a post from 2010 about the legal implications of hunger striking. Disclaimer: I haven’t updated my research since then, but am simply re-posting the information in case it’s of interest. Links may be broken or out-of-date.


If you’re on a hunger strike and someone force-feeds you, that sort of ends your strike, interfering with your First Amendment right to protest, but also with your Fifth/Fourteenth Amendment due process right to refuse medical treatment, as well as various state privacy rights you may have. In some cases, force-feeding could violate the U.N. Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment. By analogy, across the Atlantic, the European Court of Human Rights has in some cases found force-feeding to violate Europe’s provision against “inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment” (see PDF p. 7).

On the other hand, in the United States, prisons have an Eighth Amendment obligation to keep prisoners alive — or at least, in legalese, not to demonstrate deliberate indifference to a substantial risk of serious harm — and may also have various obligations under state law. So, if you’re on a hunger strike and you’re in prison, can the prison staff force-feed you? A Connecticut state judge recently ruled that it’s OK for prison staff to continue force-feeding a prisoner who’s been on a hunger strike for over two years (see also this commentary, criticizing the decision, from the UConn student newspaper, and this AP report). In an amicus brief in support of the prisoner in this case, professors from the Yale, Northeastern, and Western New England law schools had argued that force-feeding could violate not only the Constitution but also international law, and noted that the World Medical Association has condemned force-feeding.

As the WMA’s Malta declaration begins, hunger strikes “are often a form of protest by people who lack other ways of making their demands known,” including prisoners wishing to call attention to an individual or collective grievance. There’s been some confusion lately about whether or not there’s a hunger strike on in California’s prisons to protest the Three Strikes Law. Terry Nichols, the (other) Oklahoma City bomber,announced a hunger strike back in February to demand more healthful food. Last year the “shoe bomber” Richard Reid was reportedly on a hunger strike in 2009. In Texas, immigration detainees have been hunger striking since January, protesting conditions at the Port Isabel Detention Center. Although the legal issues are technically distinct, force-feeding was also an issue for Guantanamo Bay detainees.

Written by sara

July 12, 2011 at 7:31 am

California’s Pelican Bay Supermax on Lockdown after Inmate Attack on Guards

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As reported by the Los Angeles Times:

Pelican Bay State Prison was placed on indefinite lockdown Tuesday after at least two inmates, both convicted of crimes in Los Angeles, allegedly attacked three prison guards with homemade weapons, state corrections officials said.

The union representing the state’s 31,000 prison guards said two officers required dozens of stitches after suffering deep slash wounds on their faces. Another officer sustained multiple stab wounds, including one cut through his collarbone. …

Union officials said the prison was designed to house 2,280 inmates, but because of the state’s inmate overcrowding crisis, the prison houses 3,461 inmates.

The California prison guards’ union (CCPOA) gets a lot of bad press — not all of it undeserved — but it’s worth keeping in mind that CCPOA has been a vocal opponent of the appalling levels of overcrowding in California’s prisons. CCPOA intervened in Plata v. Schwarzenegger — on the side of the plaintiff prisoners. In other words, CCPOA filed a brief before the Supreme Court asking the Nine to uphold the prisoner release order. From the CCPOA brief, which is available via SCOTUSblog here (PDF):

During the course of this litigation, the State of California has not disputed that its correctional facilities have long failed to provide these minimal levels of mental health and medical care to the 160,000 inmates being held within them. Nor does the State dispute that overcrowding contributes significantly to these failures.

CCPOA’s members play an integral role in nearly every facet of prison health services. … [D]espite their best efforts, CCPOA’s members cannot adequately perform these duties given the current state of overcrowding. Based on its members’ experience with the day-to-day realities of overcrowding and the resulting medical deficiencies in California’s prisons, CCPOA took the extraordinary step of intervening in the three-judge court remedial proceedings on the same side as the plaintiffs.

It’s unusual for prisoners’ rights lawyers to sit at the counsel table next to lawyers for the prison guards’ union, but there you have it: That’s how it’s been throughout the Plata v. Schwarzenegger litigation. Overcrowded prisons are not just unsafe for inmates. They’re also unsafe for guards.

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