Photo courtesy of William Coleman's family

Reporters can not visit hunger-striking prisoner William Coleman for interviews the Connecticut Department of Correction said this week, citing “safety and security” concerns and saying no further explanation would be released.

Since cancelling an interview scheduled for September 30 with a Hartford Advocate reporter, and after receiving another request on Wednesday, prison spokesman Andrius Banevicius said that an “agency decision” was made to disallow them altogether.

The Hartford Advocate reported September 30 on its online blog, Connecticut News Hole, that in cancelling its interview, Banevicius said “prison officials consider Coleman a narcissist who will only be hardened in his resolve to starve himself if he receives attention from the media.”

Coleman, a British citizen, is housed in the infirmary of the medium security Osborn Correctional Institution in Somers. He began refusing liquids September 15 after refraining from solid food for a year, according to an American Civil Liberties Union release. The ACLU is defending his right to hunger strike.

Prison medical staff began forcing liquids on Coleman intravenously on September 22 after winning a court order in January authorizing force-feeding if it became necessary..

Coleman is protesting his innocence he says of a 2005 conviction for spousal sexual assault and a justice system he says is easily manipulated by spouses making accusations in the midst of custody and divorce disputes. Coleman was accused while in a dispute with his ex-wife over custody of his two sons. He lost an appeal of the conviction last year and is four years into an 8-year sentence. After his release, he will be required to register as a sex offender and may be deported.

Rep. Chris Caruso, D-Bridgeport said denying Coleman access to the press may be an issue the legislature should review. “I think you should be able to interview him,” he said.

Prison security riddle

Caruso said he is not familiar with all the Department of Correction’s security procedures but still questioned the department’s denial, he said.

“You can always set up protocols,” he said. “Minimally, there is already word out that he is on a hunger strike.” The charge he is convicted of is “very serious. I am not taking sides I just think you should have the right to interview this person. He is pretty emphatic about his innocence,” Caruso said.

Transcripts and audio recordings of Coleman’s 2005 trial also are not available to the public except for purchase at a minimum of $3 per transcript page, a substantial expense for anyone outside the criminal justice system examining Coleman’s case.

After contacting officials at the Department of Correction Thursday to learn the basis for the security ban, Rep. Arthur O’Neill, R- Southbury, said the department’s reasons are legitimate but that he could not disclose everything disclosed to him. Rep Michael Lawlor, D-East Haven said he had received some general information from the department and was waiting for more before commenting.

Lawlor is co-chair and O’Neill a ranking member of the legislature’s Judiciary Committee, which oversees the Department of Correction. Both members said earlier in the day that prison officials were obligated to provide more rationale for the decision than they had.

“Their concerns, which they asked me not to pass on in full to you, did seem to be legitimate,” O’Neill said.

“One of their concerns, which is not their most important one, is that this involves a sex offense against someone. Their concern is that he is going to use press interviews to inflict more emotional damage on the victim,” O’Neill said.

He said prison officials agreed instead to expedite the placement of reporters by Coleman on his list of people he is allowed to telephone collect. The allowed length of the calls is 15 minutes, according to administrative directives published by the department.  Reporters also can correspond with him by mail.

Lawlor has supported press restrictions in the past. He says he opposes press interviews of death row inmates, for example. Though he initially said Wednesday he believed reporters should be able to interview Coleman, he pulled back on that on Thursday while he waited for more information from prison officials.

The Judiciary Committee works with the department to institute security policies. “At the end of the day, the legislature sets all these polices,” Lawlor said.

Prison officials are not curbing visits to Coleman by clergy or his attorney.

Coleman’s attorney David McGuire, visits him at least once a week, ACLU spokesman Patrick Doyle said.

McGuire said Coleman responded to the department’s latest measures by saying that he is reluctant to talk on the phone to reporters because the calls are recorded.  Because he is physically weak, conveying the volume of information that would be generated in a half-hour interview in writing is more difficult, he said.

“Silencing political speech”

Coleman, 48, is 5-feet, 10-inches tall and weighs 135 pounds, down from more than 250 pounds a year ago. He moves about in a wheel chair.

The ACLU is challenging the constitutionality of force-feeding Coleman on free speech grounds and on his right to refuse medical care. A bench trial in state court is expected to be held in January.

McGuire said that force-feeding Coleman is an act of “silencing political speech.”

Prison officials use leather straps to hold Coleman to his bed when administering the nutrients, Doyle said.
Medical staff have performed the procedure five or six times since September 22, beginning with only a saline solution and adding electrolytes and potassium to the mix in subsequent feedings. To perform the procedure, Coleman has to be strapped down for up to five hours, with breaks. The weight gain achieved after the first feeding is disappearing more quickly now with subsequent ones, Doyle said.

Prison officials will not comment on the force-feeding except to say they will do what is necessary to preserve his health.

In extending the prison’s authority to force feed Coleman Superior Court Judge James Graham ruled in May that prison officials’ concern that other inmates will engage in “copy-cat” hunger strikes if Coleman was allowed to continue, was “entirely credible and persuasive.”

Doyle said that Coleman informed prison officials that he would remove the IV if he were not strapped down. By refusing to cooperate in the feedings, Coleman is in violation of the court order, which orders him not to resist. 

Court transcript “review”

Without reading the trial transcripts and interviewing Coleman, public review of his claims is virtually impossible.

Clerks of the court and judges can release court records without charge if in their discretion the records appear to be in the public interest, but court transcripts are a different story. The court would have to pay the court reporter or monitor per page to make a copy of the transcripts available to the public to read, judiciary spokeswoman Melissa Farley said.

The Coleman transcripts include a four-day jury trial and numerous pre- and post-trial appearances. They would likely cost over $2000 and could cost well over $3000.

In some states and in most of the federal courts, the public may access audio tape or CD recordings or the written transcripts of court proceedings like any other public court record. In Connecticut, labor issues involving the loss of income to court stenographers from selling transcripts appears to be an issue delaying action by the judiciary in making them more accessible. The practice hog-ties journalists who want to review past cases on a routine basis.

The need for easier access has come up with focus groups and Chief Justice Chase Roger’s Public Trust Committee, Chief Court Administrator, Judge Barbara Quinn said. It will entail reviewing the statutory scheme for paying court reporters that has developed over a long period of time, she said. “We are going to be looking into it,” she said.