If the ACLU has its way, the United Nations may be playing a role in an ongoing dispute in Connecticut’s Department of Correction.
William Coleman, a British foreign national, is an inmate in MacDougall Correctional Facility in Suffield, Conn. Last year, he began a hunger strike to protest corruption in the American criminal justice system. This past January, the State of Connecticut won a court order allowing them to take any and all measures necessary to protect Coleman’s health. According to reports filed with the ACLU, Coleman was artificially fed over 10 times, both intravenously and intra-nasally. The ACLU is challenging the order in state court and has asked the United Nations to intervene to stop what it calls a violation of Coleman’s human rights.
Coleman is serving an eight-year sentence for sexual assault. On Sept. 16, 2007, he began a hunger strike, consuming only fluids. On the one-year anniversary of the strike, he stopped consuming fluids as well, putting his life in danger. Coleman weighed roughly 245 pounds before his strike began. By October 2008, he was down to around 126.
In June, Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal LAW ’73 sought and won a court order allowing the prison to take “any steps necessary to preserve [Coleman’s] life.”
Since then, Coleman has been artificially fed 13 times, 11 intravenously and two intra-nasally. In intra-nasal feeding, tubes are inserted through the nose and down to the stomach, through which food is pushed. Coleman, through his lawyers, claims he was given no sedatives and repeatedly choked on the nasal tubes, and even began violently coughing blood.
Coleman’s accounts cannot be confirmed as the doctors and prison officials performing the procedures turned off the camera.
Brian Garnett, the spokesman for the Connecticut Department of Correction, said in a telephone interview that the prison had a constitutional obligation to protect the health of its inmates, though he did not comment on the procedure itself, citing the prison’s privacy obligations related to medical records.
Though Coleman was represented in the January 2008 court order proceedings by a public defender, the ACLU has since taken over the case. They now have a bench trial challenging the order set for late January.
In addition to handling the case in American courts, the ACLU sent a letter to the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights based in Geneva, Switzerland. They requested that the Special Rapporteur on Torture examine the situation, consider intervention and appoint an independent health professional to oversee the hunger strike.
The ACLU staff attorney handling the case is David McGuire. He sees the dispute as a clear-cut case of human rights.
“Our arguments are twofold,” he said. “First, Mr. Coleman has a right to bodily integrity. Second, it’s a matter of free speech. Mr. Coleman was making a political statement.”
Asked whether the prison had a legitimate interest in preserving the health and welfare of their inmates, he replied that basic human rights had to take precedence.
“Their concern is understandable, but Mr. Coleman was aware of the dangers of such a gesture when he started it, and he made an informed choice,” McGuire said. “He presents no risk to the prison.”
While an appeal of a court order falls within normal legal proceedings for the ACLU, the request to an international body to take action within the United States has little precedence. It remains to be seen whether the U.N. even has the jurisdiction to do so.
McGuire and Jamil Dakwar, the ACLU’s director for its Human Rights Project, said they believe they are on firm ground.
“All international laws apply when a competent person is force fed,” McGuire said. “The U.N. is well-respected, they have no stake in the case, and we hope they will listen and act.”
But the United States has historically been highly protective of its sovereign rights as a nation, even abroad — America has refused to join the International Court of Justice, which would give the U.N. jurisdiction over U.S. actions internationally.
As a comprehensive Yale University study of the U.N. — The U.N. in its Second Half-Century — directed by Bruce Russett, Dean Acheson Professor of International Relations and Political Science, reported, “U.N. intervention inside America is not politically possible.” The Journal of the American Medical Association further states in a report on hunger strikes and force feeding, “In the United States, force feeding is governed not by international human rights law, but by the Eighth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.”
Garnett said that he would not speculate on whether the Department of Correction would allow international officials supervisory access to Coleman, emphasizing that the Department is operating under constitutional authority and a Connecticut Superior Court order.
The ACLU’s arguments do not rely upon simply the fact that Coleman is a British national, however. They contend that this, as with any breach of human rights, is the province of the United Nations.