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Editorial - One costly diet fight

February 19, 1998

Washington County Circuit Court Judge Frederick C. Wright III this week ruled that state prison officials can force-feed an inmate who's refusing solid food, but only if he's in imminent danger of dying. More appeals are already planned, and it's time to ask how much it is costing the taxpayers to pursue a case that seems based more on an individual prison's policy than on any deeply held principle.

The case involves Warren Stevenson, 45, who's refused solid food for more than four years to protest his 1989 conviction for a burglary he claims he didn't commit. During three years in the House of Corrections in Jessup, prison officials coped with his unusual protest by giving Stevenson extra rations of milk, juice and liquid food supplements.

But when Stevenson was transferred to Roxbury Correctional Insitution last March, officials said "no" to the extra liquid rations. Nine months later, he collapsed, weighing just 107 pounds. The state went to court to get permission to force-feed Stevenson through a tube. Despite the pain, he's refused to eat solid food, though he has been buying supplemental liquids from the prison commissary.

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State officials lost us when they argued that an inmate cannot create a special diet without a special medical reason. Using that logic, Muslim and Jewish prisoners could be forced to eat ham sandwiches because their aversion to doing so is based on strongly held religious beliefs and not on a medical need to avoid pork.

A few questions: If this policy is so sound, then why isn't it enforced system-wide instead of giving each prison the leeway to craft its own rules? If it made sense for the House of Corrections to allow a liquid diet, then why not for RCI?

Aside from any questions of logic, what is it costing the system to force-feed this inmate, and to litigate this matter? A lot more, we'll bet, than doing what they did in Jessup. Stevenson's not going anywhere anytime soon, and if he wants to drink his meals instead of eat them, that seems less harmful (and certainly less costly) than fighting him and his allies in court.

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