Utah inmates may be force fed under proposed bill

Tuesday , March 18, 2014 - 11:10 AM

Josh Loftin

SALT LAKE CITY— Prison workers could force feed Utah inmates if their lives are in imminent danger under a bill that moved to the House floor Monday, a response to the starvation death of an inmate who feared he was being poisoned.

When Carlos Umana died last year in the Salt Lake County jail, he had dropped from 175 pounds to 77 pounds. Family members said in a federal lawsuit that Umana was not eating because of mental health issues that were left unaddressed by jail employees.

The county settled the lawsuit in December.

To prevent similar deaths, Rep. Derek Brown, R-Cottonwood Heights, said a panel of experts should be given the power to forcibly feed and hydrate inmates for up to three days. The panel would include the sheriff, a doctor and a mental health expert.

Hunger strikes are one of the few ways a prisoner can protest while in jail and is well-established as a constitutionally-protected right, said Marina Lowe, the legislative and policy analyst for the American Civil Liberties Union of Utah. Even if the inmate is near death, the jail doesn’t have the right to force them to eat.

"Even those people who are incarcerated have a right to determine what happens to their body," Lowe said.

Brown said his intent is not to restrict free speech with House Bill 194, which could be debated by the full House this week after passing the House Law Enforcement and Judiciary Committee on a 7-2 vote Friday. The panel could consider whether an inmate is using the hunger strike as a form of protest and decide against force feeding or the inmate could appeal the panel’s decision to a judge.

"At a minimum, this lays out a road map that can be followed by those who are making life and death decisions," Brown said. "The point is to solve these problems more effectively, ideally in a way that is positive for the inmates."

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