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Conn. Supreme Court rules prison officials can force-feed inmates to protect their health
HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) ' Connecticut prison inmates who go on hunger strikes can be restrained and force-fed to protect them from life-threatening dehydration and malnutrition, the state Supreme Court ruled Monday.
The 7-0 decision came in the case of 51-year-old prisoner William Coleman, a Liverpool, England, native who stopped eating in September 2007 to protest his conviction on what he claimed was a fabricated rape charge by his ex-wife. The court rejected Coleman's claims that force-feeding him violated his free speech rights and international law.
Coleman's weight dropped from 237 pounds to 129 pounds by October 2008, and a prison doctor who believed Coleman was at risk of dying or developing irreversible health problems determined it was necessary to force-feed him by inserting a feeding tube through his nose and into his stomach.
The first of what Coleman's lawyers say was about a dozen forced feedings was performed on Oct. 23, 2008, after prison officials had obtained permanent authority to force-feed him after a trial in Superior Court. Coleman appealed the Superior Court judge's ruling to the Supreme Court.
Coleman resumed taking liquid nutrition voluntarily in late 2008 and returned to a normal weight, court records say, but the American Civil Liberties Union of Connecticut says he went back on the hunger strike last week.
David McGuire, a lawyer with the state ACLU chapter who represented Coleman, wasn't immediately available for comment Monday and planned to release a statement later in the day, the ACLU said.
In Monday's ruling written by Justice Flemming L. Norcott Jr., the state Supreme Court noted that it and the U.S. Supreme Court previously have said that people's rights can be limited when they are in prison in efforts to keep order.
The court, therefore, rejected Coleman's claims that common law gives him the right to control what happens to his own body and that force-feeding him violates his First Amendment right to free speech and his 14th Amendment privacy and liberty rights in being free from unwanted medical treatment. Coleman has also said the force-feedings are very painful.
Prison officials had said there would be security and health risks about other inmates if they allowed Coleman to starve himself to death, because other inmates would likely get angry at prison officials or go on similar hunger strikes.
Justices also cited rulings by high courts in Washington state, New Hampshire and Illinois that said those states' interests in running their prisons effectively and preventing suicides outweighed the rights of inmates' to refuse nourishment.
State law also requires prison officials to take care of ill inmates, the court said.
"Thus, the (Correction Department) commissioner has not only a compelling interest in preserving the life and health of the inmates in the custody of the department, but also a statutorily mandated duty to do so," Norcott wrote.
Norcott later added in the ruling, "It is clear that the commissioner appropriately sought to preserve the defendant's life using the safest, simplest procedure available."
Prison officials issued a statement agreeing with the Supreme Court's ruling.
"The Department of Correction has an obligation to ensure the safety and security of the inmates in our custody," the statement said. "This ruling has affirmed our ability to carry out that mission."
Coleman was sentenced in May 2005 to eight years in prison for a 2002 sexual assault and is scheduled to be released by next December. He said his hunger strike is to protest his wrongful conviction and a corrupt judicial system.