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Sacramento - California authorities won court approval on Monday to force-feed some prisoners on a hunger strike after officials voiced concerns that inmates may have been coerced into refusing food in a protest against the state's solitary confinement policies.
US District Court Judge Thelton E Henderson, responding to a request by state authorities, ruled that California prison doctors may force-feed select inmates who are near death, even if they had previously signed orders asking not to be resuscitated.
About 136 inmates are currently taking part in a hunger strike that began July 8 in prisons statewide to demand an end to a policy of housing inmates believed to be associated with gangs in near-isolation for years. About 69 of the striking inmates have refused food continuously since the strike began.
The hunger strike - one of a string of such actions by prisoners in recent years - is the latest difficulty to plague the state's prison system, which is under federal court order to reduce crowding by the end of the year, possibly by releasing up to 10 000 inmates early.
Medical care in the prisons was taken away from the state as part of the same case, and placed under the control of a court-appointed receiver. Another court appointee is in charge of the system's mental health programs.
The hunger strike launched last month has already gone on twice as long as a similar protest in 2011 and has attracted more prisoners - 30 000 at its peak - although numbers have since dramatically dwindled.
Now well into a second month without food, dozens of inmates have been sent to hospitals for various ailments, officials said.
Prior to the judge's decision on Monday, 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.
But officials went to court to ask for permission to ignore these “do-not-resuscitate” orders for inmates who signed them during the hunger strike or just prior to it, citing concerns about possible coercion.
Henderson wrote in his order that in view of those concerns, a “do not resuscitate” order signed by such inmates would be “deemed not valid.”
A lawyer for some of the hunger strikers said she was not aware of inmates being coerced.
“They're exaggerating this,” said inmate advocate Carol Strickman.
The state should not ignore inmates' wishes in such matters of life and death, Strickman said. “As much as I don't want to see anybody die, some people were choosing to sign those requests and some were not.”
Among the complaints sending inmates to hospital in recent days are dehydration, cramping, vomiting, diarrhoea, dizziness and lightheadedness, said Liz Gransee, a spokeswoman for the federal receiver overseeing care in the state's prisons.
“This is so our doctors, when they see an inmate near death, will know that they can step in and do anything,” said Joyce Hayhoe, a spokeswoman for a federal receiver. - Reuters