Washington high court rules inmate has no right to starve himself

[JURIST] The Washington Supreme Court [official website] on Thursday ruled [opinion] that the Washington state constitution does not provide a right for prison inmates to starve themselves to death. Convicted arsonist Charles R. McNabb sued the Washington State Department of Corrections (DOC) [official website] to stop his force-feeding [JURIST news archive]. McNabb pursued his case under the Article I, Section 7 guarantee of privacy enshrined in the Washington constitution [text], but DOC officials argued that they had a "legal and constitutional obligation" to prevent him from starving to death. The court ultimately ruled in favor of the DOC, noting that McNabb was not on a hunger strike but was rather attempting to commit suicide via starvation:

An individual retains a modicum of constitutional protection while incarcerated. However, "many rights and privileges are subject to limitation in penal institutions because of paramount institutional goals and policies." [citation omitted]. Therefore, in accord with holdings from other jurisdictions, we conclude that McNabb retains a limited right of privacy, including the limited right to refuse artificial means of nutrition and hydration subject to the goals and policies of the prison system...

[W]e conclude that the State's interests in applying DOC's force-feeding policy to McNabb outweigh his right to refuse artificial means of nutrition and hydration.

First, the State has a compelling interest in maintaining security and orderly administration in its prison system...

Second, the State has a strong interest in the preservation of life where medical treatment will in fact save the patient's life...

Third, the State has a compelling interest in protecting innocent third parties...

Typically, the court considers the interests of the patient's dependents and family members...

Fourth, the State has a compelling interest in the prevention of suicide...

Fifth, the State has a compelling interest in the maintenance of the ethical integrity of the medical profession.
Only one justice dissented [text], writing that "force-feeding will not rehabilitate McNabb or contribute to his welfare; by contrast, force-feeding is degrading and cruel."

McNabb pleaded guilty to first-degree assault and arson after he set fire to the house of his estranged wife, and received a sentence of 14 years. He first stopped eating while detained before trial, apparently in an attempt to starve himself to death out of remorse. Prison officials began to force-feed McNabb after attempting to convince him to eat on his own. The Spokesman Review has more.

 

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