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California allowed to force-feed hunger-striking prisoners, judge rules

Some 136 California inmates are currently taking part in a hunger strike that began July 8 to demand changes to housing policies for gang members. After concerns arose that some hunger strikers had been coerced into refusing food, the court ruled Monday that the prisons can force-feed inmates.

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Diya Malika, of the Stop Mass Incarceration Network, protests solitary confinement in California prisons, in Sacramento, Calif., Aug. 14. Dozens of prisoner rights activists, inmates' family members, and others gathered for the demonstration in support of the dozens of inmates who have refused all meals since the strike began July 8.

Rich Pedroncelli/AP

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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.

U.S. District Court Judge Thelton E. Henderson, responding to a request by state authorities, ruled that California prison doctors may force-feed select inmates near death, even if they had previously signed orders asking not to be resuscitated.

Some 136 California 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. Some 69 of the striking inmates have refused food continuously since the strike began.

This is the second time prisoners have launched a hunger strike to protest the state's practice of housing some inmates for years in its four Security Housing Units.

About 4,500 prisoners were housed in the units when the strike began, officials said. State officials say the units are needed to stem the influence of prison gangs – and in fact, administrators have repeatedly characterized the hunger strike as a power grab by gang leaders.

But the state's policy of housing prisoners for years in these units has been condemned by a number of human rights organizations, including Amnesty International. And at least one prisoner on the hunger strike has said that he is willing to die to make his point that the detentions are inhumane.

The hunger strike is the latest problem 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.

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, 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.

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