California authorities have won court approval to force-feed many prisoners on a hunger strike after officials voiced concerns that inmates may have been coerced into refusing food in a protest against the state's solitary confinement policies.
The approval came on Monday when a federal judge, responding to a state request, ruled that California prison doctors may force-feed selected inmates near death, even if they had previously signed orders asking not to be resuscitated.
About 136 California are inmates observing a hunger strike that began July 8, demanding an end to a policy of solitary confinement for inmates believed to be associated with gangs.
Nearly 70 of the striking inmates have refused food continuously since the strike began.
This is the second time prisoners have launched a hunger strike to protest the practice in California's four Security Housing Units, where about 4,500 prisoners were housed when the strike began, officials said.
State officials say the units are needed to stem the influence of prison gangs. Administrators have repeatedly characterised the hunger strike as a power grab by gang leaders.
But the state's policy has been condemned by a number of human rights organisations, including Amnesty International.
Prison officials and attorneys representing the inmates are increasingly fearful that some inmates will soon die as their vital organs fail. Officials, however, could not say how many inmates, if any, are currently near death.
Gang power play
Some officials have, however, dismissed the strike as a way for gangs to control the drug flow among those in the prison population.
The strike is a gang power play" attempted "to terrorise fellow prisoners, prison staff and communities throughout California
Jeffrey Beard, who is the head of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, called the strike a “gang power play” attempted “to terrorise fellow prisoners, prison staff and communities throughout California” in an opinion piece in the Los Angeles Times earlier this month.
Prison officials said that inmates are free to consume a liquid diet, but will be counted as having ended their hunger strike if they consume anything more than water, vitamins and electrolytes.
The federal and state officials were joined in the request by the Prison Law Office, a Berkeley-based non-profit that represents inmates' welfare. The group has filed lawsuits that led to a federal takeover of the prison health care system, and a requirement that the state sharply reduce its inmate population to improve conditions.
They had asked the judge to let the chief medical executive at each prison act if a hunger striker is at risk of “near-term death or great bodily injury,” or is no longer deemed competent to give consent or make medical decisions.
The order signed by the judge is applicable to only the refeeding of inmates participating in the current hunger strike.