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Utah inmate's starvation death spurs bill on force-feeding

Published February 10, 2012 7:46 pm

Corrections • Bill would give prisons the right to force-feed in a medical emergency.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

When a 19-year-old inmate starved to death in his jail cell, Salt Lake County Sheriff Jim Winder said it pointed to a clear need for a way to allow jailers to forcibly feed or hydrate an inmate on at least a short-term basis.

Carlos Umana withered from 175 pounds when he was booked into jail to just 77 pounds when the 19-year-old inmate died four months later after a prolonged hunger strike.

Rep. Derek Brown, an attorney, is proposing legislation that would establish a process for jails and prisons to follow to determine whether they can intervene to protect the inmate.

"This is a tragic situation. It's tragic not only for the prisoner and the family, but for everyone involved," said the Cottonwood Heights Republican. "When someone decides, 'I'm going on a hunger strike,' … it is fairly nebulous in the law and it's very problematic for the facility to determine what we do."

Brown's HB194 was approved by the House Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Committee by a vote of 7-2 on Friday, with two Democrats voting against it. It goes to the full House for consideration.

The challenge posed by the issue, Brown said, is deciding whether an inmate has a constitutional right to starve himself and, if so, determining that the inmate is not mentally ill.

HB194 would allow a prisoner to be forcibly fed or hydrated for up to three days if a panel with the sheriff, a doctor and a mental health therapist determine the inmate is in imminent danger of permanent injury or death.

That gives officials enough time to go to court for a judgment of the inmate's mental fitness to refuse food or water. If the inmate is fit, the hunger strike can continue.

If not, or if the prison's interest outweighs the inmate's right to refuse food or water, or it is determined the inmate is attempting to obstruct justice, the court can order further forced feeding or hydration.

Winder said that he strongly believes that "action could have been taken to prevent" Umana's death, had the process in the bill been in place at the time.

"You can believe you're Jesus. You can believe whatever you want and you're going to go on a hunger strike," Winder said. "But you're going to have to convince people other than me [that it's legitimate]."

But Marina Lowe, legislative director for the Utah chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, said the bill is problematic. It allows a panel to violate an inmate's rights to privacy and — if the hunger strike is politically motivated — free speech.

"This forced feeding process does indeed compromise First Amendment protest rights, as well as the right to refuse treatment," she said.

An amendment was added to the bill so that the process would apply to the Utah Department of Corrections, as well as county jails.

"This would be tremendous for us," said Robyn Williams, deputy director of Corrections. "Nobody wants to stand by ... and watch another human being go through that when there's something that can be done medically."

Williams said hunger strikes are not common, and in most instances the prison's medical staff has been able to persuade inmates to agree to break a fast.

"Push comes to shove, we have no choice. We'll send them to the state mental hospital," which she said has greater latitude than the prison when it comes to forced feeding and hydration.

Rebecca Glathar, executive director of the Utah chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, said the group has been working with Brown about the bill, but has concerns about the legislation. The group's board has taken a position opposing it.

Rep. Curt Oda, R-Clearfield, said he would like to see jails protected from lawsuits if they follow the process in Brown's bill. He said he would explore such language. Salt Lake County paid Umana's family $144,000 to settle a lawsuit stemming from his death.

gehrke@sltrib.com

Twitter: @RobertGehrke