In 1989 Abate brought suit against the department of corrections seeking to acquire his Ethiopian Orthodox Christian diet. Ethiopian Orthodox leaders had informed officials their faith requires adherence to Old Testament dietary laws. There was never any question as to Abate's faith, but rather the department's refusal to provide his diet.
"The department was doing everything we could," DOC spokesman Mike Arra said. "But we could not accommodate him."
That claim by Arra was disputed by Donna Hamm, President of Middle Ground Prison Reform. "I understand an inmate cannot make unreasonable requests, but when he has religious beliefs he is willing to die for, it seems like DOC could go halfway," she said.
The court agreed with the department and the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals and U.S. Supreme Court affirmed. After these rulings denying his diet, Abate launched his hunger strike. Prison officials received a court order to force-feed him intravenously, but soon grew weary of his resistance. Officials then decided not to continue to attempt to force-feed him.
"For a department that has executed seven inmates since 1993 [by lethal injection] to say it can't keep an IV in an inmate's arm is laughable," said Donna Hamm.
In letters home to his uncle, Abate had complained of harassment by guards and prisoners due to his nationality and beliefs. He complained also that reports of those abuses were not responded to by officials.
"It became a burden to attempt to accommodate him," said Arra.
The incident brought criticism from Naneen Karraker, an advocate with the California Criminal Justice Consortium. "The prevailing attitude across the country is prisoners don't deserve anything," she said.
Arizona Daily Star ,Seattle Times ,Washington Post
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