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Judge rules state has right to force-feed inmate

February 18, 1998|By BRENDAN KIRBY

Judge rules state has right to force-feed inmate

Washington County Circuit Judge Frederick C. Wright III ruled Wednesday that prison officials have the right to medically force-feed an inmate who is on a hunger strike, but only when his life is in imminent danger.

Under a preliminary injunction issued Jan. 5, the state obtained permission to force-feed Warren R. Stevenson, an inmate at Roxbury Correctional Institution south of Hagerstown, by inserting a feeding tube down his nose.

Stevenson, 45, has been on a hunger strike since January 1994 to protest what he calls his "illegal" incarceration on burglary charges. Prison officials sought court permission to force him to eat after he collapsed during a check-up in December.

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Wright expressed concerns on Wednesday about a "slippery slope" in which all of Stevenson's free-speech rights would be quashed.

Assistant Attorney General Alan D. Eason said he and Stevenson's lawyer, Joseph Tetrault, would negotiate language that would recognize the state's limited right to intervene if Stevenson's life were in immediate danger.

Wright said he would review the order before signing off on it.

Earlier in the hearing, Tetrault requested that Wright dismiss the case because Stevenson's health had improved. His weight had risen to 141 pounds by Tuesday, up from a low of 112 pounds, according to a prison doctor.

Dr. Mohamed S. Moubarek testified that Stevenson's weight and blood chemistry have stabilized even though he continues to refuse solid food.

Stevenson has been supplementing his diet with extra hot chocolate and other liquids he buys from the prison commissary.

Moubarek testified that a balanced diet would be better for his health. In addition to normal risks, he said Stevenson has Hepatitis C, which his diet may exacerbate.

"Would he be able to keep weight his up? Maybe. Will he be healthy? Probably not," he said.

William W. Sondervan, the assistant commissioner of the state Division of Correction, testified that the state has a vital interest in preserving Stevenson's life. Allowing him to die might agitate other prisoners or inspire copy-cat hunger strikes, he said.

Sondervan also testified that specialized medical treatment would be costly.

Tetrault rejected those arguments, noting that the legal fight and the force-feeding procedure itself are costly.

The decision voids Stevenson's appeal of Wright's Jan. 5 ruling for a preliminary injunction. Stephen Z. Meehan, deputy principal counsel for the Prisoner Rights Information System of Maryland Inc., said Stevenson will appeal the permanent injunction in the same manner.

Attorneys for Stevenson had simultaneously appealed the Jan. 5 decision to the Court of Special Appeals and asked the Court of Appeals to grant a special, expedited review of the case. Meehan said the new appeal would follow the same route.

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