Today the state high court ruled 8-1 today that the few privacy rights afforded inmates do not allow them to refuse food and hydration--even if

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Civics 101: You Don't Have the Right to Starve Yourself to Death in Jail

Today the state high court ruled 8-1 today that the few privacy rights afforded inmates do not allow them to refuse food and hydration--even if the state uses force to get them fed. Charles McNabb arrived at Airway Heights Correctional facility outside Spokane after he set fire to his estranged wife's house in 2003. He stopped eating, until DOC finally strapped him down and force fed him through a tube laced through his nostril.

McNabb sued the state Department of Corrections, saying that in force feeding him nutrients, DOC violated his right to privacy. His case was thrown out in Superior court and ended up in the appellate court where he argued that he was not trying to commit suicide, but only "let nature take its course." Again he lost with the appellate court ruling that not only did his actions look a lot like suicide, which the state has the right to prevent, but also because inmates don't have the same right to privacy enjoyed by the rest of us.

The Supreme Court affirmed the appellate court ruling noting that while it is constitutionally acceptable to refuse nutrition as part of a hunger strike: "the State's interests in applying DOC's force-feeding policy to McNabb outweigh his right to refuse artificial means of nutrition and hydration."

In addition to Justice Mary Fairhurst's majority opinion, Justice Barbara Madsen authored a concurring opinion arguing that there was no balancing issue between a general right to refuse sustenance and a right to do so with the intention of committing suicide.

Prisoners who are otherwise healthy have no right to refuse artificial means of nutrition and hydration in an effort to end their lives. Contrary to the inference of the dissent, Charles McNabb is not conducting a hunger strike -- he is attempting to commit suicide. The extraordinary intervention in this case was initiated only when medical staff issued a written determination that McNabb's health was threatened. McNabb has no right to starve himself to death by refusing sustenance while in the custody of the State--this is not a privacy right that citizens of the state hold or expect to hold.

The dissent Madsen refers to was authored by Richard Sanders objects to both the means of force-feeding and the reasons for doing so. Sanders writes: "This case is no more about the right to suicide than Lawrence v. Texas was about the right to sodomy. Rather, this case is about 'the most comprehensive of rights and the right most valued by civilized men,' namely, 'the right to be let alone.'"

 
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