Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Do prisoners have the right to starve themselves?

There's an intriguing article today in the Hartford Courant today about a prisoner named William Coleman going on hunger strike and the ensuring debate over whether he has the right to starve himself, even to death. The prison has begun force-feeding him after his weight has dwindled from 250 lbs to 125. Coleman believes he was wrongly convicted and sees himself as protesting a corrupt correctional establishment.

In a Superior Court hearing that begins Thursday in Hartford, Judge James T. Graham will hear arguments that pit First Amendment and privacy rights — including the right to refuse medical treatment — against the state's interest in preventing suicide, maintaining control of its prisons and resisting inmate coercion.

I'm not entirely sympathetic to the prisoner's claim that starving himself amounts to Constitutionally protected free-speech, but I feel he has the right nonetheless. My question is, if a person is allowed to commit suicide outside of a prison, why should it be different inside?

Meanwhile, I came across this excellent post by Cecil Adams over at the Straight Dope on the history and cultural morality of suicide.

In the U.S. suicide has never been treated as a crime nor punished by property forfeiture or ignominious burial. (Some states listed it on the books as a felony but imposed no penalty.) Curiously, as of 1963, six states still considered attempted suicide a crime--North and South Dakota, Washington, New Jersey, Nevada, and Oklahoma.

It's a thorny issue, and there's probably not a neat and tidy answer. (I might even have my understanding entirely wrong: "But Dr. Michael Grodin, director of medical ethics at the Boston University School of Medicine and Public Health, said hunger strikes are not suicide attempts because the intent is not to die, but to produce a change.")

Either way, Coleman seems determined to carry out the strike "to the end," and also has the support of his family. I'm not sure that the state's interests overpower those wishes, but, then again, our culture has struggled with "the right to die" for a few decades now. Just some food for thought.

1 comment:

Yankee Interloper said...

Count me among the civil libertarians on this one. Surely one should have the right to starve oneself for political reasons. The "Hunger Strike" is a hallowed form of political protest -- a core nonviolent method of producing political change. Gandhi. Bobby Sands. Binyam Mohammed al-Habashi.

More broadly, one does and should have a privacy and personal autonomy right to decline the ingestion of things into one's body. Rochin v. California (1952), 342 U.S. 165.

But I would go even further. At present the law allows the government to step in and manage the lives of those who pose an immediate threat to themselves and others. The first half of that standard is among the greatest infringements on personal liberty that there is. Anyone who takes the right to privacy seriously -- including the right to one's body, to abortion, to have sex with other consenting adults (even those of the same sex!) -- ought defend the right of individuals to injure themselves, including the right to end their lives. What could be more central to one's personal autonomy than the right to end one's personhood. Count me among those who see the right to suicide as the most central right of all.

The incarcerated necessarily give up certain rights -- most obviously the right to travel freely. But prisoners maintain lots of basic rights, including among others, the right to marriage (Zablocki v. Redhail), the right to be free of cruel and unusual punishment, the right to practice one's religion, the right to medical treatment, the right to access to court, etc. Count me among those who would say that the right to limit one's own food intake is every bit as sacred as any of those rights.