Force-feed inmates

Prison can force-feed inmates on hunger strike

Prisons may force-feed inmates on hunger strikes because the state's obligation to protect the health of its citizens trumps the prisoner's right to make medical choices, an appellate court has ruled.

In a unanimous decision, the Appellate Division, Third Department, last week upheld a state Supreme Court order allowing officials at Great Meadow Correctional Facility in Washington County, north of Saratoga, to force feed Leroy Dorsey, who is serving a 16-years-to-life sentence for assault. Dorsey, 47, lost almost 12 percent of his body mass after maintaining a liquid diet for a month in late 2010 while demanding to be transferred to another facility.

The prison's medical director testified to Acting State Supreme Court Justice John Hall Jr that Dorsey's "self-imposed starvation was causing significant damage to his organs and that, absent intervention, he would suffer organ failure and death." Hall granted the prison permission to force feed Dorsey through a tube.

On appeal, Dorsey's attorney argued that her client's goal was not to kill himself, but to draw attention to "perceived injustices against him" and his demand for a transfer, according to the ruling.

But the Third Department held that Dorsey's manipulation "undermine(d) any argument that the hunger strike was the exercise of any fundamental right."

While Dorsey's transfer to a different prison last year technically mooted the appeal, the panel chose to weigh in on the question for the first time "because this issue could easily recur (and) will typically evade review."

"In New York, it is a crime to assist another in committing suicide, and our courts have drawn a clear line between the right to decline medical treatment and the right to take one's life," Justice Edward Spain wrote for the panel.

He said that Dorsey did not have a "fundamental right to demand a specific diet absent a religious or medical need."

The Department of Corrections' "legitimate interest in maintaining rational and orderly procedures in its facilities is implicated where, as here, an inmate is attempting to manipulate the penal system," the court wrote.

Shannon Stockwell of Mental Hygiene Legal Service in Albany, who represented Dorsey, did not return a call seeking comment.

The Attorney General's office, which represented the prison, declined comment.

The case is Norman Bezio, as Superintendent of Great Meadow Correctional Facility v. Leroy Dorsey, New York State Supreme Court, Appellate Division, Third Department, No. 511234.

For Dorsey: Shannon Stockwell of Mental Hygiene Legal Service in Albany

For Bezio: Assistant Attorney General Martin Hotvet

(Published by Reuters - January 18, 2012)

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