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Judge foils convict's hunger strike

January 06, 1998

Judge foils convict's hunger strike

By BRENDAN KIRBY

Staff Writer

A prisoner who has waged a hunger strike for the last four years will continue to be medically force-fed, a judge ruled Monday.

Washington County Circuit Judge Frederick C. Wright III granted a preliminary injunction in a case that could set a precedent in Maryland. The ruling allows state prison officials to resume tube-feeding Warren R. Stevenson.

Wright earlier had granted a 10-day temporary restraining order, but that expired on Friday.

Stevenson, 45, testified on Monday that he decided to go on a hunger strike on Jan. 1, 1994, to protest his "illegal incarceration" for burglary. He said he sent a letter to the commissioner of correction notifying him of his intentions.

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"I was told it was a means of free speech," he said.

While serving a 25-year term in Jessup, Md., Stevenson subsisted on liquids, including extra milk rations provided by prison officials.

His health began to deteriorate after he was transferred to the Roxbury Correctional Institution south of Hagerstown last March. Authorities there did not give him extra liquids, saying he had to eat what was offered the other inmates.

Maryland Assistant Attorney General Alan D. Eason argued Monday that the state has no obligation to alter a prisoner's diet unless the prisoner has a medical condition that demands it.

"It's really no different than if an inmate said, 'I'm going to restrict my diet to steak, or fish,'" he said.

Stevenson's attorney, Joseph Tetrault, argued that his client was exercising his First Amendment rights by refusing to eat. Providing extra liquids would cause no undue hardship to the prison, he said.

"The whole problem was not with the hunger strike itself," Stevenson said.

If the prison had given him extra liquids, Stevenson's health would not have deteriorated, Tetrault said.

"This is a crisis the Division of Correction clearly brought on itself," he said.

In granting the preliminary injunction, which will remain in place until a hearing is held to determine the merits of a permanent order, Wright said the state has a strong interest in preserving life.

Wright also questioned the logic of protesting the actions of the Baltimore County state's attorney's office - which Stevenson claimed falsly prosecuted him - with a hunger strike from prison.

"I think in this, the reason for Mr. Stevenson's protest cannot be cured by those persons who have ultimate responsibility for his care," he said.

William W. Sondervan, assistant commissioner of the Division of Correction, testified that allowing Stevenson to starve to death would harm morale of both staff and inmates.

"It does have an impact. Our people are human," he said. "Corrections is more of an art than a science. Prisons are very hard to run."

Under the order, officials can feed Stevenson through a tube placed through his nose or a tube inserted surgically into his stomach.

Dr. Mohamed S. Moubarek, a prison doctor who has overseen Stevenson's treatment, said Stevenson has gained 17 pounds since he collapsed Dec. 12 during a routine check-up. If treatment ended, Moubarek testified, Stevenson would run a number of health risks, including fatty liver, an irreversible, life-threatening condition in which the liver turns to fat.

"I think he probably would go back to where he was in December," he said.

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