In a case of first impression, the Connecticut Supreme Court ruled that the state could forcibly feed a prison inmate engaged in a hunger strike. The inmate went on the hunger strike to protest his conviction. When his weight became precipitously low and he appeared extremely dehydrated, the commissioner of corrections applied for a temporary and permanent injunction permitting the state to forcibly restrain and feed him. The trial court granted the temporary injunction and, after a trial, the permanent injunction.
The inmate appealed, alleging that (1) the inmate’s common law right to bodily integrity outweighed the state’s interest in preserving life; (2) the forcible administration of artificial nutrition and hydration violated his right to free speech; and (3) international law prohibits the force-feeding. The court disagreed and affirmed the trial court’s judgment.
The court recognized that, although a competent adult has the right to embark voluntarily on a hunger strike, even when artificial sustenance would be necessary to prevent death or irreversible bodily harm, lawful incarceration brings about the necessary withdrawal or limitation of many privileges and rights. A prison inmate retains those rights that are not inconsistent with status as a prisoner or with the legitimate penological objectives of the corrections system.
Following decisions of other states that have faced the issue of whether an inmate’s right to bodily integrity outweighs the state’s interest in preserving life, the court balanced the state’s interest in: (1) the preservation of life; (2) the protection of the interests of innocent third parties; (3) the prevention of suicide; (4) the maintenance of the ethical integrity of the medical profession; and (5) the maintenance of security and the day-to-day order of the prison. Applying these factors, the court found that not only does the state have an interest in preserving an inmate’s life, it has a statutorily mandated duty to do so.
In considering whether force-feeding an inmate to prevent irreversible damage to health, or even death, impinges on the inmate’s constitutional rights, the trial court properly found that the force-feeding was reasonably related to legitimate penological interests. The trial court, applying a four-part test established by the U.S. Supreme Court, evaluated: (1) whether there is a valid, rational connection between the prison regulation and the legitimate governmental interest put forward to justify it; (2) whether there are alternative means of exercising the right that remain open to prison inmates; (3) the impact the accommodation of the asserted constitutional right will have on guards and other inmates, and on the allocation of prison resources generally; and (4) whether there is an absence of ready alternatives. Although not ruling on whether the four-part test was always appropriate in an action concerning a specific prison action rather than a prison regulation, the court affirmed the trial court’s conclusion.
In response to the inmate’s claim that the weight of international authority condemns force-feeding inmates—even when necessary to prevent death or permanent damage—as medically unethical, the court concluded international law was not binding on Connecticut courts. Additionally, the body of law presented by the inmate and the amici curiae did not represent a consensus of international opinion on this issue.
See: Commissioner of Correction v. Coleman, 303 Conn. 800 (Mar 13, 2012).