[Ppnews] Guantánamo Is Not an Anomaly — Prisoners in the US Are Force-Fed Every Day
Political Prisoner News
ppnews at freedomarchives.org
Tue May 7 10:55:43 EDT 2013
Guantánamo Is Not an Anomaly — Prisoners in the US Are Force-Fed Every Day
May 6, 2013
I know a hunger-striking prisoner who hasn’t eaten solid food in more
than five years. He is being force-fed by the medical staff where he’s
incarcerated. Starving himself, he told me during one of our biweekly
phone calls last year, is the only way he has to exercise his first
amendment rights and to protest his conviction. Not eating is his only
available free speech act.
The prisoner has lost half his body weight and four teeth to
malnutrition. He and his lawyer have gone to court to stop the
force-feedings, but a judge ruled against him in March. If I asked you
to guess where Coleman is being held, you’d likely say Guantánamo —
“America’s offshore war-on-terror camp
— where a mass hunger strike of 100 prisoners has brought the ethics of
force-feeding to American newspapers, if not American consciences.
Twenty-five of those prisoners are now being manually fed with tubes.
But William Coleman is not at Guantánamo. He’s in Connecticut. The
prison medical staff force-feeding him are on contract from the
University of Connecticut, not the U.S. Navy. Guantánamo is not an
anomaly. Prisoners — who are on U.S. soil and not an inaccessible island
military base — are routinely and systematically force-fed every day.
The accounts of force-feeding coming out of Guantánamo, including Samir
Naji al Hasan Moqbel’s “Gitmo is Killing Me
in /The New York Times/ two weeks ago, are consistent with how Coleman
has described the process to me — and to the Supreme Court of Connecticut.
On Oct. 23, 2008, medical staff and corrections officers first strapped
Coleman at four points to a vinyl medical table and snaked a rubber tube
up his nose, down his throat and into his stomach. When the tube kinked,
they thought his reaction to the pain was resistance and tied him across
the chest with mesh straps. They reinserted the tube and Coleman gagged
as they drained Ensure, a nutrient drink, into it. He continued to gag.
He bled. He vomited. He felt violated, not medically treated. Coleman is
still being force-fed; sometimes the staff put a semi-permanent tube up
his nose, sometimes they don’t. They no longer strap him down. He knows
the staff. They are, he says, following orders.
The fact that force feedings are being discussed in the context of
Guantánamo is dangerously misleading; it obscures the routine use of
feeding tubes in American prisons. Other recent feeding tube cases have
taken place in Washington state, Utah, Illinois and Wisconsin — all
prisoners who had the resources to contest their treatment in court. No
sweeping study of force-feeding has been done, so statistics on usage
don’t exist. Only three states have laws against force-feeding
prisoners: Florida, Georgia and California, where a hunger strike in
2011 at a facility in Pelican Bay effectively caused a court examination
of prison conditions. Just this week Leroy Dorsey, who sued New York
state to have his force-feedings stopped, lost his case
“Force-feeding order did not violate inmate’s rights,” the Reuters
No matter where force-feedings take place, whether in Guantánamo or
Connecticut, they are considered torture by most of the world’s medical
and governing bodies. As U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Rupert
Coville said this week
about tube usage, “If it’s perceived as torture or inhuman treatment —
and it’s the case, it’s painful — then it is prohibited by international
law.” At /The Daily Beast/, Kent Sepkowitz
a doctor, writes, “Without question, [force-feeding] is the most painful
procedure doctors routinely inflict on conscious patients,” and calls it
In 2005, when 142 Guantánamo detainees stopped eating, their subsequent
force-feedings caused 263 international doctors to write an open letter
in the medical journal /The Lancet/
that denounced the practice and called on doctors to stop participating.
They wrote, “Physicians do not have to agree with the prisoner, but they
must respect their informed decision.”
To little effect, the American Medical Association condemned
the force feedings in 2005, 2009 and again last week, saying that “every
competent patient has the right to refuse medical intervention,
including life-sustaining interventions.”
Yet most media outlets continue to portray feeding tube use as a
“complex ethical debate.” It’s not. Competent prisoners go on hunger
strike because they have something to say and no other way to say it.
Prison officials choose not to hear — and silence them with tubes. In
court documents, wardens cite two primary concerns: the health of the
prisoner, whose well-being they are responsible for (and for whose
“suicide” they could be blamed); and prison order, including disruption
of facility routine, copycat hunger strikers, and low morale among
corrections officers and staff.
According to Mara Silver, who wrote about prison hunger strikes for
/Stanford Law Review/ in 2005
there is scant evidence that hunger strikers disrupt prison order. In
fact, she notes, wardens often aren’t required to show proof when
challenged. Consistently, routinely, wardens are deferred to in these cases.
Last week /The Chicago Tribune/ reported
that President Obama, who has not yet fulfilled a campaign promise to
close Guantánamo, had courts on his side:
Most U.S. judges who have examined forced feeding in prisons have
concluded that the measure may violate the rights of inmates to
control their own bodies and to privacy — rights rooted in the U.S.
Constitution and in common law. But they have found that the needs
of operating a prison are more important.
Prisoners’ rights activists have long acknowledged courts’ reluctance to
reconsider application of common law and constitutional rights to those
inside. This status quo works so long as it is supported by public
opinion — or public ignorance of the practice.
Hunger strikes have the power to change public opinion. This might be
why the warden of Coleman’s prison has refused my request for a visit —
and that of any other journalist. As the warden put it in a brief
letter, they think my presence might “exacerbate” the inmate’s condition
or “contribute to his detriment.” Or, perhaps, bring attention to
Coleman’s case. So long as force-feeding is considered an exceptional
practice, applied to less than two dozen men from foreign countries, and
on foreign soil, the public and the medical community can remain
ignorant of the torture within our growing domestic prison industry.
For an article on William Coleman
appeared in /Guernica/ magazine in January, I spoke with American
bioethicist Jacob Appel, who has written extensively about Coleman
<http://paq.press.illinois.edu/26/4/appel.html> and feeding-tube usage
in U.S. prisons. The public discourse about Guantánamo, Appel told me,
had falsely assumed that torture and abuse are an exception rather than
the general rule. Guantánamo, he said, “was presented as … an
extraordinary set of circumstances, not an outflow of American law.”
Ann Neumann is editor of /The Revealer/, a publication of the Center for
Religion and Media at New York University. She has written for
/Guernica/ magazine, /The Nation/ and the /New York Law Review/, and has
appeared on Voice of America, NY-1 News and WBAI. She teaches journalism
at Drew University. Neumann blogs about religion and dying at
Freedom Archives 522 Valencia Street San Francisco, CA 94110 415
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