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New York Courts Affirms Prison's Right to Force Feed Prisoner

by Lonnie Burton

On December 29, 2016, a New York appellate court ruled that prison officials did not violate a prisoner's rights by medically force feeding him. The court found that the prison's responsibilities for "safety and discipline" and to prevent imminent death or serious injury overrode the prisoner's right to refuse medical treatment and to privacy.

The prisoner, identified in court documents only as "Jua TT," was locked up at the Coxsackie Correctional Center in Greene County, New York, when he began a hunger strike in May 2013 in a an effort to effectuate his transfer to another state prison. In June 2013, a state trial court granted an application by the department of corrections and community supervision officials allowing them to force feed Jua TT when necessary. A five-judge appellate court panel affirmed that decision.

Jua TT, acting as his own attorney, appealed the lower court decision in June 2014, arguing that force feeding him violated his rights to "privacy, liberty, and free speech." The lower court specifically approved force feeding Jua TT by medical means such as a nasal tube. Jua TT argued this violated his right to refuse medical treatment as well.

Jua TT told prison officials that he would continue his hunger strike until he died or was transferred, prompting prison officials to seek court intervention. The appellate court found that prison officials were well within their rights to take the action they did.

"When an inmate commences a hunger strike, which, if continued, would create a substantial risk of imminent death or serious permanent injury, a force-feeding order is warranted if the state's intervention, even if contrary to the inmate's constitutional rights" is needed to keep the prisoner alive, the court wrote.

Civil rights advocates agreed with the courts’ ruling. Michael Sussman, a Mid-Hudson civil rights attorney, said he wasn't that troubled by the decision, as it "is perfectly consistent with current law."

Sussman went on to say that "the care and custody of an inmate is the responsibility of the state when he's incarcerated," and pointed out that New York does not even recognize the right of a free civilian to "euthanize themselves."

Prison officials and the state attorney general's office declined to comment on the case. Jua TT is serving a 25-year sentence for an unspecified crime, and court documents were unclear if Jua TT has ended his hunger strike. See: In the Matter of Daniel Martuscello Jr., as Superintendent of Coxsackie Correctional Facility v. Jua TT, No. 520580 (C.A. NY 3rd), December 29, 2016.

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Related legal case

In the Matter of Daniel Martuscello Jr., as Superintendent of Coxsackie Correctional Facility v. Jua TT