Six weeks into a hunger strike protest inside California prisons, a federal judge on Monday gave the state permission to force-feed inmates if medical officials determine they are at risk of death.
The order by U.S. District Judge Thelton E. Henderson gives the state permission to act if a medical official finds "a hunger striker is at risk of near-term death or great bodily injury in the absence of intervention or has become incompetent to give consent or make medical decisions. ..."
The order came at the request of the court-appointed receiver's office, which oversees health care in the prisons, along with corrections officials.
"The main purpose of it is to provide some clarity for our medical doctors," spokeswoman Joyce Hayhoe said, adding that no inmates currently are at risk of death from the protest.
Thousands of inmates began refusing meals on July 8 in a protest aimed at state policies on solitary confinement, but the numbers have dwindled dramatically since then.
Court documents indicate that as of Monday, 69 inmates have continued to refuse meals since the hunger strike began and 129 are currently refusing meals.
The inmates now participating are housed in six facilities - the Centinela State Prison in Imperial County, California Men's Colony near San Luis Obispo, the California Medical Facility in Vacaville, Corcoran State Prison, Pelican Bay State Prison near Crescent City, and Sacramento State Prison.
Hayhoe said hunger strikers are receiving liquids and electrolytes through drinks such as Gatorade and are checked by medical personnel at least once daily.
The order allows prison officials to take action - using intravenous liquids or providing nourishment through drinks such as Ensure to imperiled inmates - even if they oppose it.
The order allows inmates who previously executed "do not resuscitate" directives to be excluded, unless they were executed for the purpose of taking part in the hunger strike. It also allows officials to ignore such a directive if they determine "it was the result of coercion or otherwise not the product of the hunger striker's free will."
The request was filed as a joint request from the receiver, corrections officials and the Prison Law Office, which represents the inmates.
Don Specter, director of the Prison Law Office, said his attorneys did not seek the measure but agreed not to oppose it.
A corrections spokeswoman said the measure was necessary to ensure inmate safety.
"The health and safety of inmates is our top priority and we are working with the Receiver's Office and with inmates' attorneys from the Prison Law Office to ensure that doctors are making decisions on proper care and treatment of hunger strikers, many of whom are participating due to threats and intimidation by prison gang leaders," spokeswoman Deborah Hoffman said.
Call The Bee's Sam Stanton, (916) 321-1091. Follow him on Twitter @stantonsam.