The Longest Hunger Strike
January 25, 2013 6:37 PM   Subscribe

The Longest Hunger Strike "It had been more than a year since Coleman had chewed anything. He’s not suicidal; he’s in prison for something he says he didn’t do. Like 2.2 million people incarcerated in prisons and jails in the U.S., his body is not his own. The only way for him to protest his conviction, to exercise his first amendment rights, he says, is to stop eating solid food."
posted by dhruva (35 comments total) 27 users marked this as a favorite

 
What a fascinating article. Thanks for posting.
posted by 4ster at 6:56 PM on January 25, 2013


Most policy (and I am not exaggerating) comes at the response to death. So if Coleman dies, someone somewhere in the system needs to pay for that. The easiest policy to create in response to a death from hunger striking is -- do whatever it takes to prevent the strike from being fatal.
posted by effugas at 7:13 PM on January 25, 2013 [2 favorites]


This is a simply an awful story. I remember the hunger strikes in Ireland all to well. I met two people who had been in Long Kesh at that time. The condition you are in if you live through a hunger strike is not good. You are never the same. Forced feeding is indeed as awful as they say, from all accounts I have heard.
posted by Katjusa Roquette at 7:17 PM on January 25, 2013 [2 favorites]


Some days I think the reason I work in environmental conservation is that working in social justice would make me too frustrated and angry.
posted by Scientist at 7:35 PM on January 25, 2013 [10 favorites]


I'm glad the article didn't recount the details of the crime for which he was convicted, or speculate on his guilt or innocence. It doesn't matter.
posted by desjardins at 7:46 PM on January 25, 2013 [9 favorites]


The phrase Kafka-esque is thrown around a lot, but I find it very appropriate in this case. Situations like these really lay bare the frighteningly cold inhumanity of our liability-limiting bureaucratic machinery. I find it hard to imagine that anyone directly connected to this case would -- in good conscience and without a strong dose of self-deception -- claim that justice is in any way being served by keeping this man just on the brink of death by force-feeding him against his will. And yet, the state has its justifications, the doctors have theirs, etc.
posted by treepour at 7:52 PM on January 25, 2013 [4 favorites]


Couldn't get past the part where it says he drinks Ensure. Just kept thinking "This isn't really a hunger strike." I clearly missed the point but sorry that's just how I felt.
posted by thorny at 7:59 PM on January 25, 2013 [1 favorite]


are you confusing "hunger strike" with "starving oneself to death"?
posted by boo_radley at 8:07 PM on January 25, 2013 [3 favorites]


Couldn't get past the part where it says he drinks Ensure. Just kept thinking "This isn't really a hunger strike." I clearly missed the point but sorry that's just how I felt.
posted by thorny at 7:59 PM on January 25 [+] [!]


Sorry he wasn't starving enough to warrant your time? If you had read further, however, you'd have realized he only does it to keep the warden happy-otherwise they force feed him, which is quite literally torture.
posted by FirstMateKate at 8:08 PM on January 25, 2013 [7 favorites]


Sorry he wasn't starving enough to warrant your time? If you had read further, however, you'd have realized he only does it to keep the warden happy-otherwise they force feed him, which is quite literally torture.

I dunno. I'm of two minds. One is that prison officials can't be letting people commit suicide, or suddenly lots of them are doing just that by "accidentally" falling down stairs and whatnot.

On the other, I've got a great deal of sympathy for the idea that he should be allowed to die if he really wants to.

On the third hand, I think there are better more meaningful forms of protest available than a hunger strike nobody cares about.

On the fourth hand, I suspect he got railroaded.

the linked story quotes Mark Dery, who had a short and interesting time as Metafilter's Own Mark Dery.
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 8:25 PM on January 25, 2013 [2 favorites]


Wow, Pogo_Fuzzybutt - you're a class act when you say: "I think there are better more meaningful forms of protest available than a hunger strike nobody cares about."

Please do enlighten us about the forms of prison protest that are available and that people would care about?

( The lack of compassion is really something and it might not just be the bureaucratic machinery that is all kinds of fucked up. )
posted by ioerror at 8:32 PM on January 25, 2013 [4 favorites]


From Pogo_Fuzzybutt's link:

"The testimony of one witness is sufficient to convict," Serafini said during closing arguments last Thursday.

It sounds like they had at least a little more testimony than that, but that is an absolutely terrifying statement to hear from a state attorney.
posted by Mitrovarr at 8:34 PM on January 25, 2013 [2 favorites]


Wow, Pogo_Fuzzybutt - you're a class act when you say: "I think there are better more meaningful forms of protest available than a hunger strike nobody cares about."

Please do enlighten us about the forms of prison protest that are available and that people would care about?


Well, look. I was on the other end of some pretty heinous accusations by the other side during my long and contentious custody suit. One of the things I had to be prepared for was that one of the false accusations would stick and I'd be in big trouble for something I didn't do.

So, you know, there but for the grace of god and all that. I feel for the guy. What happened to him was a nightmare that was all to close to reality for me. Don't try and get me with this "lack of empathy" thing.

But jeez, he's got options. Do his time, go back to Britain and to hell with the kids. Find better lawyers and appeal. Find new evidence and appeal. And so on.

Yeah - its easy to armchair quarterback and all that. But still, it seems like he had other options that he wrote off for reasons that weren't explained and are otherwise inexplicable. As I say, I feel for him, but I don't think I would have chosen his tactics in his situation.
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 8:49 PM on January 25, 2013 [3 favorites]


Ian Brady has been on hunger strike since 1999.
posted by quarsan at 9:43 PM on January 25, 2013


I guess my grandmother was on a hunger strike the last decade of her life.
posted by five fresh fish at 10:15 PM on January 25, 2013 [1 favorite]


I guess my grandmother was on a hunger strike the last decade of her life.

Was she being force fed by court order against her lucid, rational, clearly expressed desires?
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 11:09 PM on January 25, 2013


He raped his wife.

Sure seems like there is reasonable doubt. The only piece of evidence is her say-so, she had motive to lie (he had just filed for sole custody of the kids), and she didn't react the way a rape victim will normally react (her reason for not getting a rape kit wasn't because she didn't want to be re-traumatized, but that it "wasn't a priority").

Maybe he's guilty, maybe he isn't. It doesn't seem like great journalism to me, though, to leave out what he was convicted of. It just leaves the question hanging in the air unresolved and all the more of a focus point.
posted by parrot_person at 11:53 PM on January 25, 2013


It doesn't seem like great journalism to me, though, to leave out what he was convicted of. It just leaves the question hanging in the air unresolved and all the more of a focus point.

Disagree - it doesn't matter what he did, or whether he's guilty. He's in prison, not a danger to society; he ought to be treated humanely.
posted by spaceman_spiff at 12:07 AM on January 26, 2013 [6 favorites]


Maybe he's guilty, maybe he isn't. It doesn't seem like great journalism to me, though, to leave out what he was convicted of. It just leaves the question hanging in the air unresolved and all the more of a focus point.

Except the article does mention this (with a bit of subtlety, to avoid making it a focus):
I don’t know if Coleman’s an “innocent man wrongfully convicted” as the pink and black website kept by his brother Geoff reads across the top. I do know that most of the world agrees that force-feeding someone, anyone, even a prisoner who is convicted of raping his wife and has refused solid food for five years, is torture.
posted by xchmp at 1:24 AM on January 26, 2013


Well, that's the American impusel, isn't it?

He raped his wife.

Therefore, everything that's done to him is justified, up to the point of him being raped himself (and I would argue force feeding somebody the way it's described in the article is analogous to rape.)
posted by MartinWisse at 2:19 AM on January 26, 2013 [3 favorites]


He's in prison for raping his wife. He is being punished. Therefore, yes, the fact--if true--that he raped his wife is not relevant to his protest. The retribution has been taken care of.
posted by LogicalDash at 3:01 AM on January 26, 2013 [1 favorite]


The crime he was convicted of is not relevant to whether his treatment is inhumane, no. But neither is the fact that there are "2.2 million people incarcerated in prisons and jails in the U.S." Certainly, the writer realizes that it's something readers will want to know: "Every person I spoke with wanted to know what Coleman had been convicted of." Coyly referring to his crime as "something he says he didn’t do" reflects a paternalistic attitude toward the reader. Would she have used the same approach if the crime had been a nonviolent drug offense?

Marital rape was legal in parts of the U.S. until the 1990's, so I wouldn't say that punishing it severely is "the American impulse."
posted by Ralston McTodd at 3:38 AM on January 26, 2013


True, it's more the idea that if you're a criminal, you deserve anything you get in prison.
posted by MartinWisse at 5:07 AM on January 26, 2013 [1 favorite]


The crime he was convicted of is not relevant to whether his treatment is inhumane,

The only one being inhumane towards Mr. Coleman would seem to be Mr. Coleman himself:

"So even though his sentence ended on December 31, Coleman is trying to stay in prison. “All I have left is my credibility, which I vigorously protect,” Coleman wrote to me last month. He believes refusing to leave testifies to his innocence. I don’t think I have the heart to tell him that credibility is exactly what he doesn’t have or he wouldn’t be sitting in MacDougall right now. What he does have is conviction; not anybody can give up solid food for as long as he has. Still, commitment to his long hunger strike doesn’t prove he’s innocent."

This guy has less than no credibility and even less touch with reality. He was convicted by a jury based on the testimony of his accuser without any forensic evidence - he is as credible as Lance Armstrong. American prisons have lots of problems, but this is not one of them. They should kick him out of prison and relieve the taxpayers of the burden of his upkeep.
posted by three blind mice at 6:26 AM on January 26, 2013 [2 favorites]


It sounds like they had at least a little more testimony than that, but that is an absolutely terrifying statement to hear from a state attorney.

I don't see why it should be terrifying that a person can be convicted on the testimony of one witness. Many crimes, such as the rape for which the prisoner was convicted, may only have the testimony of the victim. Does the victim's testimony suddenly not count? I was pretty surprised to read a comment dismissing it because "she didn't react the way a rape victim will normally react" i.e. "well, she didn't *act* raped".

And of course, many crimes have no eyewitnesses. No one testified, "I saw him murder her" at the trials of Ted Bundy. Perhaps if you came home to find your place ransacked, you wouldn't call the police because no one saw the crime occur?
posted by Tanizaki at 6:37 AM on January 26, 2013 [3 favorites]


The point that his guilt or innocence is irrelevant stems from the fact that this form of torture shouldn't be done to anyone in the prison system.
posted by Evernix at 6:54 AM on January 26, 2013 [1 favorite]


Tanizaki: I don't see why it should be terrifying that a person can be convicted on the testimony of one witness.

Because eyewitness testimony is highly unreliable and has been proven assuch in numerous studies. It's not that the victim's testimony doesn't count, but the suspect's testimony can't just be discarded either, and without additional evidence it should never be enough to overcome reasonable doubt. Basically, nobody is so totally reliable and incorruptible that their testimony alone should provide enough evidence for a conviction; anyone could be mistaken, have incentive to lie, or have quietly gone crazy without anyone noticing.
posted by Mitrovarr at 9:17 AM on January 26, 2013 [2 favorites]


Basically, nobody is so totally reliable and incorruptible that their testimony alone should provide enough evidence for a conviction; anyone could be mistaken, have incentive to lie, or have quietly gone crazy without anyone noticing.

In many, many cases of sexual assault, that's all there is.
posted by smorange at 9:26 AM on January 26, 2013


smorange: In many, many cases of sexual assault, that's all there is.

I agree with this, and it is highly unfortunate, but the seriousness of the crime does not reduce the need to actually prove someone's guilt.
posted by Mitrovarr at 9:31 AM on January 26, 2013 [2 favorites]


So even though his sentence ended on December 31, ...

Which does end is prison term, but not his punishment under the law, which includes him having to register as a sex-offender, which he refuses to do, because he insists on being innocent. Maybe eternally open ended punishments should be rethought.

They should kick him out of prison and relieve the taxpayers of the burden of his upkeep.

I guess that wouldn't work hence. They throw him out, he's imediately back in for not signing the registry.
posted by ZeroAmbition at 9:35 AM on January 26, 2013


I don't understand what going on a hunger strike is supposed to do/fix/blackmail/whatever in this situation. Seriously, I don't get it.
posted by jenfullmoon at 1:18 PM on January 26, 2013


California prisoners' hunger strike was what finally brought home to me how bad the conditions were in some California prisons (e.g., the widespread use of isolation chambers).

I don't understand what going on a hunger strike is supposed to do/fix/blackmail/whatever in this situation.

In this case, me neither. I think he's trying to protest that he is innocent? Regardless, I think he should be allowed to.
posted by salvia at 2:34 PM on January 26, 2013


It's interesting to me that the story doesn't mention Coleman appealing his original conviction. All he seems to be fighting for in court is the right not to be force-fed, but the reason he's fighting that fight is to protest his innocence (if I'm understanding correctly). I don't understand why, if his point is that he's innocent, he's not using the appeals process.
posted by epj at 8:13 PM on January 26, 2013


He did appeal his conviction, but it was upheld in 2007. (Found on this Wikipedia page.)
posted by desjardins at 1:04 PM on January 27, 2013


Because eyewitness testimony is highly unreliable and has been proven assuch in numerous studies. It's not that the victim's testimony doesn't count, but the suspect's testimony can't just be discarded either, and without additional evidence it should never be enough to overcome reasonable doubt. Basically, nobody is so totally reliable and incorruptible that their testimony alone should provide enough evidence for a conviction; anyone could be mistaken, have incentive to lie, or have quietly gone crazy without anyone noticing.

Yeah, IAAL and have actually given jury instructions. Of course witnesses can lie, be mistaken, or otherwise give false testimony. That is why juries get a standard instruction that they can give whatever weight, if any weight at all, to the testimony of any witness.

"Suspect's testimony" doesn't make very much sense because the suspect cannot be compelled to testify in the US and very rarely waives his 5th Amended right to refuse to testify. In a case where only the victim testifies, that does not mean an automatic conviction. The jury could feel free to find the victim not to be a credible witness and vote to acquit.

You are calling for a standard that the law does not require. "Beyond a reasonable doubt" does not mean that the evidence must be "totally reliable and incorruptible". It simply must overcome the fact-finder's *reasonable* doubt. Not any doubt, not a manufactured doubt. The troubling part of your position is that you are arguing that if all that exists is the victim's testimony, that is reasonable doubt as a matter of law and the accused must be acquitted. That position is what is terrifying.
posted by Tanizaki at 1:51 PM on January 28, 2013


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