Attorneys for a British prisoner who lost more than 100 pounds during a hunger strike asked the Connecticut Supreme Court on Tuesday to prevent prison officials from force-feeding him, saying that the practice violates his free-speech rights.
The prisoner, William Coleman, stopped eating in September 2007, claiming he was convicted on a fabricated rape charge. He has since begun accepting liquid nutrition and returned to a healthy weight, according to his lawyers, but he appealed to the high court for the ability to continue the protest as he chooses.
Coleman's lawyers say it is the first time a high court in any of the 50 states has taken up a challenge to prison force-feedings.
"He has a right to be free from the unwanted interference in his bodily integrity," attorney William Murray told the seven-judge panel.
The handling of the hunger strike was cited in a 2010 report by the United Nations special rapporteur on torture as one of 10 cases inside the United States in which his office received credible allegations of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment. In diplomatic correspondence released by WikiLeaks, the U.S. State Department assured the U.N. official on behalf of the Connecticut Department of Correction that Coleman was being treated humanely.
Coleman's lawyers are seeking the overturn of a Superior Court ruling last year that permitted the Department of Correction to carry out the force-feedings through a tube inserted up his nose. The judge concluded that the state's interests in the preservation of life and the maintenance of order inside prisons outweighed claims by Coleman, who said the feedings violated his rights to privacy and to refuse medical treatment.
Assistant Attorney General Lynn Wittenbrink said Tuesday that prison wardens face "Herculean obstacles" in keeping up order and allowing Coleman to die could inspire copycat suicides by other inmates.
"These are wards of the state," she said. "They simply cannot permit them to end their own lives."
Coleman, a native of Liverpool, is serving an eight-year sentence for rape. He is scheduled to be released in December 2012. The protest grew out of his claims that investigators and prosecutors ignored evidence, refused to review lie-detector and psychological test results and failed to investigate leads that would have exonerated him.
He weighed more than 250 pounds when he began his hunger strike after losing one of several appeals in 2007. His weight dropped to 139 pounds in September 2008, when he stopped taking fluids and began showing signs of dehydration.
That prompted prison officials to initially hydrate him intravenously with a saline solution containing electrolytes. Officials later inserted a feeding tube through Coleman's nose and into his stomach, a method that was used at least a dozen times.
Coleman testified in 2009 that the tube insertion was exceedingly painful.
"I actually screamed out in pain quite a few times," he said. "I have never felt pain like that, ever."
In arguments Tuesday, Murray said laws in the United Kingdom and Canada do not allow force-feeding of prisoners in circumstances similar to those of Coleman, who argued that his treatment violated international law. But Wittenbrink said there was no consensus among other countries on when force-feeding prisoners is appropriate.
Spokesman Brian Garnett said the Correction Department does not currently consider Coleman to be on hunger strike. He said there are no Connecticut inmates currently on hunger strike, a designation that takes effect when somebody refuses food for several consecutive days.
David McGuire, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Connecticut who represents Coleman, said that despite regaining weight, his client suffers from digestive problems and other ailments as a result of his strike.
"Without a doubt, he's done permanent physical harm to himself," he said.