Editor’s note: The views expressed in this editorial are those of the author.
Connecticut prison inmate William Coleman has been on a hunger strike for a year and started refusing liquids on Tuesday, which means without intervention, he may not make it to the weekend.
In Connecticut, where autonomy in medical decisions and free speech rights do not particularly persuade in court, the Department of Correction won the power to force-feed Coleman in January. They have not acted on it, but may before the end of this week.
National and international medical ethics standards advise against any doctor in Connecticut forcing a feeding tube down his nose against his will.
His hunger strike should be protected political speech and a private medical decision. He’s been found competent to make those decisions. His living will directs doctors not to force-feed him and they are bound by it. In fact, Coleman has met every condition under the ethical guidelines of the World Medical Association that say force-feeding protesters is unjustifiable.
In August 2007, the American Medical Association, which is a member of the World Medical Association, published a commentary saying, “physicians can and should prevent the force-feeding of competent prisoners by refusing to approve or participate.” It particularly warned doctors working in prisons to resist dual loyalties to the patient and the prison and pressure to capitulate ethical decision-making.
The University of Connecticut Health Center, which provides the doctors and nurses to Connecticut’s prisons under a state contract won’t comment on the ethical dilemma, referring even this question to the Department of Correction. It is not clear whether UConn physicians would be involved.
The ACLU has been fighting for his rights.
There is a tradition of the Irish that when gravely wronged and denied all other recourse, an Irishman might sit on the doorstep of the party who wronged him in a hunger strike that forces that party to confront his rotting Irish corpse. Who gets to say this freedom will be denied anyone?
Coleman is protesting a criminal justice system he has observed to be susceptible to wrongful convictions and is therefore a threat to the public. He says the system is easily manipulated by spouses making criminal accusations during divorce or custody proceedings, according to court papers and a personal statement publicly released. He was accused by his ex-wife of rape while they were involved in a bitter custody dispute over their two young sons. No rape kit was ever performed. He was convicted by a jury in Waterbury Superior Court in 2005 in a case that was rife with worrisome questions about thin evidence covered at the time by the press and has served over four years of an eight year prison term. He will register as a sex offender upon his release if his conviction is not overturned and if he lives to see that day. He has not seen his sons since his incarceration. He says he is innocent and the signs read clearly to him: he and others would not be in prison but for lax, cynical, and downright corrupt practices by prosecutors, judges and defense attorneys. He filed a petition of Habeas Corpus in 2005 that is still pending in Rockville Superior Court seeking his release or a new trial.
Hunger strikes are last resort free speech. They are the voice of the voiceless. They are testimony that no one has listened to every other attempt to speak. They are testament of a voice robbed of credibility. The message of hunger strikes is just that. They should be provocative, causing the so-called “system” to reflect on whether it cares about truth and justice, it’s imperatives, or whether it has forsaken its highest duties. They ask the public to stop and listen with an open mind.
Coleman might be right. Has any close observer of the courts in the state of Connecticut not found the standards for reasonable suspicion, probable cause and beyond a reasonable doubt too often suspiciously the same?
Can any competent observer not acknowledge the open secret in the courts that prosecutors pass weak cases over to judges who pass weak cases over to juries, juries often consisting of members who have no idea of this virtuoso bureaucratic insensitivity to truth? Is any competent observer who is aware of this unaware that the motive for this is not devotion to truth and justice?
William Coleman does not appear to be a man trifling with the interests of the state, he appears to be pointing to fundamental issues of free speech, autonomy and justice and he seems only to be asking that people hear what he is saying.
He will either die this week or be violated by the state if he does not choose to eat or drink. Is it right that we have nearly ignored him for a year? Do we not believe that his First Amendment right is relevant to ours, his right to refuse medical treatment the same as our Aunt Bessie’s? Are they not identical? Is this where our tax money is going? From arrest to force-feeding, dare we ask if any of this six-year ordeal has served any legitimate government purpose?
No one wants William Coleman to die. So shall we allow the state to quash his speech and steal his medical choices or shall we urge him to eat so we can hear him out and look closely at his claims?