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New York Prison Officials Can Force-Feed Hunger Striking Prisoner

The New York Court of Appeals, the state’s highest court, held that a hunger striking prisoner’s rights were not violated by a judicial order allowing the state to feed him by nasogastric tube to preserve his life.

The Court’s decision labeled New York state prisoner Leroy Dorsey a “serial hunger striker.” Indeed, Dorsey went on a hunger strike three times in 2010, in an effort to obtain a transfer to another facility and bring attention to his claims of abuse and mistreatment.

Dorsey began one of the hunger strikes in October 2010; a month later he had lost 11.6% of his body weight. The New York Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS) sought an order to insert a nasogastric tube and take other steps to hydrate him.

At a hearing on the petition, the DOCCS submitted testimony indicating that Dorsey was at imminent risk of starving to death or experiencing “a fatal cardiac arrhythmia due to electrolyte and fluid imbalance.” Dorsey opposed the petition, arguing he was not suicidal and the DOCCS had no authority to interfere with his hunger strike protest.

The Supreme Court granted the DOCCS’ petition. Following that decision, Dorsey voluntarily consumed a nutritional supplement and ate solid food. The Appellate Division deemed Dorsey’s appeal moot but still ruled on the merits with respect to one issue, holding that when “an inmate’s refusal to eat has placed that inmate at risk of serious injury and death ... the State’s interest in protecting the health and welfare of persons in its custody outweighs an individual inmate’s right to make personal choices about what nourishment to accept.”

The Court of Appeals applied the four-part test set forth in Turner v. Safley, 482 U.S. 78 (1987). It agreed the state has a significant interest in preserving life and preventing suicidal acts, and had been found liable in the past for failing to do so. The Court also noted a hunger strike can have a “significant destabilizing impact” on a prison. Further, other means were available for Dorsey to protest his treatment, such as grievances or litigation, and the Court distinguished previous cases in which it held that a competent adult may refuse medical treatment.

“In some circumstances we do not doubt that the right to refuse medical treatment is a prerogative that is compatible with incarceration,” the Court of Appeals wrote. “But, even if we assume that some permutation of that right was implicated here, its invocation as part of a strategy to strong-arm DOCCS into granting a privilege to which Dorsey was not otherwise entitled is obviously not.”

Accordingly, the lower courts’ orders were affirmed. See: Matter of Bezio v. Dorsey, 21 N.Y.3d 93, 989 N.E.2d 942 (N.Y. 2013).

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