If you’re shocked and appalled by the potential force-feeding of former USF professor Sami Al-Arian – who stopped eating on Jan. 22, has lost 45 pounds and now needs a wheelchair to move around because he’s so weak – think about this: Force-feeding is a policy of the United States that has been upheld by both state and federal courts.
Al-Arian won’t be the first, or the last, to be subjected to it. However, the policy of force-feeding prisoners stands on constitutionally thin ice.
Al-Arian’s lawyer, Peter Erlinder, told the Associated Press, “It’s an invasive procedure, and there’s some danger of injury. We’re hopeful that there can be resolution before that. (U.S. Attorney General Alberto) Gonzalez could end this all with a stroke of a pen.”
Erlinder might want to reconsider his optimism. After all, Gonzalez could end many of the constitutional and human dignity issues surrounding the detention center at Guantanamo Bay, including policies that allow force-feeding. At Guantanamo, of course, the term has been linguistically sterilized. “Involuntary feeding” doesn’t sound as bad as force-feeding, but don’t be fooled – it is.
The preferred method of “involuntary feeding” is nasogastric, which entails strapping a prisoner down and inserting a soft food tube into his nose, down his esophagus and into his stomach. The prisoner does not necessarily receive any pain medication prior to this procedure, and medical complications associated with it include severe headaches, ulceration of the throat and stomach and internal bleeding.
However, this is no surprise to the judicial system, according to an article in The Stanford Law Review. Federal and state courts have recognized force-feeding can cause a prisoner “great pain and discomfort.” Yet courts all over the nation have found that prisoners have no right to hunger strike.
“This state of affairs persists despite the Supreme Court’s holdings in Cruzan v. Director, Missouri Department of Health and Washington v. Glucksberg that individuals necessarily possess a fundamental right to refuse lifesaving medical treatment,” said the Review.
The federal government seems to be engaged in a comedy of errors. Imprisoning Al-Arian through a plea agreement – but without any conviction – was suspicious enough. The government furthered that error by making no concession to Al-Arian’s complaint that fulfilling the government’s demand to testify would threaten his life. Now, it wants to subject him to a procedure that is questionably constitutional at best and outright cruelty at worst. Perhaps someone should remind Gonzalez that it is his job to fight injustice – not to practice it.