By Laila Kearney
SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - The California prison system had no imminent need to force-feed hunger-striking inmates on Tuesday, a day after it won federal court permission to do so because of concerns that prison gangs may have coerced prisoners into refusing food, a prison health spokeswoman said.
U.S. District Judge Thelton Henderson, responding to a request by state authorities, ruled on Monday that prison doctors may force-feed some gravely ill inmates, even if they had signed orders asking not to be resuscitated.
Prisoners launched the hunger strike in prisons statewide on July 8 to demand an end to the housing of inmates in near-isolation for years on end because they are believed to be associated with gangs.
As of Monday, some 136 California inmates were taking part in the strike, which was longer than a similar strike in 2011. Of those taking part, 69 had refused food continuously since the strike began.
Joyce Hayhoe, a spokeswoman for the federal receiver in charge of medical care in the prisons, said authorities had sought the feeding order as a precaution to treat inmates who may experience illness brought on by extreme hunger.
But there was "no imminent need" to force-feed any prisoners on Tuesday, Hayhoe said. "However, we do have inmates who have been on hunger strike for 44 days consecutively. So that could change rather quickly," she added.
The hunger strike is the latest difficulty to plague the state's prison system, which has been ordered by a federal court to reduce crowding by the end of the year, possibly by releasing up to 10,000 inmates early.
Prior to Monday's ruling, California policy prohibited force-feeding of inmates on a hunger strike if they had signed medical orders refusing resuscitation in the event they lost consciousness or experienced heart failure.
Now, doctors may force-feed inmates who had previously signed "do not resuscitate" orders if those orders were signed during or just prior to the start of the hunger strike.
California prison officials have said they are concerned that some inmates may have been coerced into taking part in the strike, aimed at conditions in California's four Security Housing Units. State officials say the units help stem the influence of prison gangs.
Administrators have characterized the hunger strike as influenced by gang leaders, and Hayhoe has said that corrections officials had presented compelling evidence that some inmates had indeed been coerced.
There was no immediate word on how many hunger-striking inmates have "do not resuscitate" orders or when they were signed. State corrections officials did not immediately respond to a call seeking comment.
Carol Strickman, an attorney who represents some of the hunger strikers, said inmates wanting to enforce their orders not to be force-fed or resuscitated would need to file a motion to modify Henderson's order.
"What disturbs me is that this force-feeding order applies to those people who have signed an advance directive and said they don't want to be force fed," Strickman said.
She said she did not know if the remaining hunger strikers had signed advance directives.
(Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Steve Orlofsky)