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Supreme Court Rules In Favor of DOC In Case of Hunger Striking Inmate

by Christine Stuart | Mar 5, 2012 7:26pm
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Posted to: Courts

(Updated 9:34 p.m.)The Supreme Court decided Monday that the state can force feed a prisoner who has been on a hunger strike for five years.

The justices agreed 7-0 that the Department of Correction took the appropriate steps when deciding to force feed William B. Coleman after receiving a temporary injunction from the trial court.

Coleman stopped eating solid food in September 2007, and stopped taking any liquids one year later to protest what he has called a “wrongful conviction.“ Coleman was sentenced in May 2005 to eight years in prison for a 2002 sexual assault of his ex-wife. He has continued the hunger strike by not eating any solid food for five years, and taking liquids when necessary. He has been force fed by prison officials several times since the trial court gave them permission back in 2008.

The Supreme Court rejected Coleman’s claims that the hunger strike violated his First and Fourteenth Amendment rights.

David McGuire, staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Connecticut, broke the news to Coleman Monday.

“He was understandably disappointed,” McGuire said in a phone interview.

Coleman escalated his hunger strike again last month and has been refusing fluids for the past 11 days, McGuire said.

He fears that another force feeding will be coming soon and this decision only opens the door to more uncertainty.

“He will be put in four-point restraints, a tube will be inserted through his nose and into his stomach and he’ll fed against his will. It’s barbaric,” McGuire said.

But the Supreme Court concluded that, “It is clear that the commissioner appropriately sought to preserve the defendant’s life using the safest, simplest procedure available, rather than improperly seeking to punish the defendant for engaging in his hunger strike. We therefore conclude that the trial court properly determined that the weight of international authority does not prohibit medically necessary force-feeding under such circumstances.”

During oral arguments in October, William E. Murray, Coleman’s attorney, asked the seven justice panel to apply a balancing test where it must weigh the interests of the inmate against those of the Correction Department. Murray and McGuire said Hartford Superior Court Judge James Graham gave too much deference to the state when he issued his decision agreeing that the state met three of the four prongs of the balancing test.

“I’m not asking the court to second guess his medical treatment,” Murray told the justices. “Mr. Coleman is just asking the court to consider that there were less invasive means available.”

But the justices sided with the Correction Department and agreed “The goal of preventing the defendant’s death by way of his hunger strike in order to maintain safety, security and order is not arbitrary or irrational.“

“Additionally, it was proper to defer to the judgment of the department officials in order to prevent the likely disturbance— and the costs associated with such disturbance—his death would cause within the prison,” Justice Flemming L. Norcott Jr. wrote.

McGuire said they are still weighing their options when it comes to petitioning the case to the U.S. Supreme Court.

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