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FL Prisoner Has Right to Die

In 1972 Florida prisoner Michael Costello filed a lawsuit that eventually turned into a class action suit that resulted in improving living conditions, court access and medical care for state prisoners. Governor Lawton Chiles estimated that the costs to the state for litigating the suit, before it was settled in 1993, was $4 million. On January 3, 1995, Costello went on a hunger strike to protest transfers to different prisons motivated by prison officials' desire to retaliate against him for his successful litigation. Prison officials sought to force-feed him and Costello went to court to prevent that from happening. Assistant Attorney General Amanda Wall, representing the DOC, argued that Costello was only trying to Amanipulate the system by going on hunger-strike

On March 3, 1995, Martin County Circuit Judge Larry Schack ruled, in a sixteen page opinion, that hunger striking prisoners have a right to refuse food and medical treatment and starve themselves to death. Costello's right to privacy (readers will note that it is the right to privacy which upholds womens' right to abortions, most privacy right cases deal with abortion, contraception and the right to die) includes his right to refuse food and medical care. It was the right to privacy, and not Costello's first amendment right to protest, that formed the basis of the court's ruling. That right outweighs the state's asserted interest in preserving life, which given the number of prisoners Florida has murdered in executions is obviously not a consistent Ainterest. Schack prohibited the DOC from administering any type of medical care without Costello's permission.

The court also ruled that prison officials could not keep Costello in segregation because of his hunger-strike. AIt is hard to imagine that if (Costello) dies as a result of his actions, that inmates will be rushing to imitate him.... As (Costello) continues to weaken, his ability to be a security threat or to cause any disruption will continue to diminish. Schack noted that Costello is clearly competent to make this decision and had skillfully represented himself pro se during court hearings over a five week period.

Costello, 44, had already lost 41 pounds within the first five weeks of his hunger strike. In the order the court said that he did not believe Costello was trying to commit suicide, though he realizes he may die from refusing to eat without life-saving intervention. AIt is interesting to note that suicide is not a crime in Florida. Assisting self-murder is. As we go to press we do not know the outcome of the hungerstrike. This is the first ruling PLN is aware of where a court has upheld a prisoner's right to go on hunger-strike without state intervention.

Sarasota Herold Tribune, March 5, 1995.

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