On Wednesday, June 19, Senator Dianne Feinstein wrote to Secretary Defense of Chuck Hagel in opposition to the practice of force-feeding Guantanamo detainees on hunger strike. Her letter cites The Constitution Project Task Force on Detainee Treatment’s finding that force feeding practices at Guantanamo are “contrary to established medical and professional ethical standards,” and its recommendation that the United States follow the World Medical Association’s guidelines on hunger strikes.
The Department of Defense has been force feeding Guantánamo inmates on hunger strike since at least 2005. In December 2005/January 2006, it began carrying out the force feeding in restraint chairs, with straps around the detainees’ hands, feet, shoulders, and torso. Detainees and their lawyers have described the procedure as painful and degrading, and contrary to medical ethics. The Department of Defense has claimed over and over that it is simply trying to preserve the detainees’ lives, and that it follows the same procedures that the Federal Bureau of Prisons does and that U.S. courts have upheld.
Federal prisons do sometimes force feed detainees, and federal courts have upheld the practice. But, as discussed in chapter 6 of the Task Force Report, there are significant differences in how most federal prisons and Guantánamo handle hunger strikes—particularly the use of restraints in force-feeding. Senator Feinstein’s staff confirmed and elaborated on these differences:
Within the Bureau of Prisons, force-feeding is exceedingly rare. The Intelligence Committee staff has been told that no inmate within the Bureau of Prisons has been force-fed in more than six months. When force-feedings do occur within the Bureau of Prisons, we have been told that nearly 95% of the time they are conducted with a fully compliant inmate requiring no restraints. At Guantánamo Bay, on the other hand, all detainees being force-fed—regardless of their level of cooperation—are placed in chairs where they are forcibly restrained. The visual impression is one of restraint: of arms, legs, and body. Further, at Guantánamo Bay, detainees are fed twice a day in this manner, potentially over a substantial period of time. This also is inconsistent with the practice of the U.S. Bureau of Prisons.
Additionally, the U.S. federal prison guidelines for force-feedings include several safeguards and oversight mechanisms that are not in place at Guantánamo Bay. These guidelines require the warden to notify a sentencing judge of the involuntary feeding, with background and an explanation of the reasons for involuntary feeding. Further, the Bureau of Prisons requires an individualized assessment of an inmate’s situation to guide how force-feedings are administered, a practice that I found largely absent at Guantánamo Bay. Finally, all force-feedings must be videotaped within the Bureau of Prisons.
Representative Mike Pompeo of Kansas responded harshly to Feinstein’s letter: “She wants them to die?” he asked. “Did she give an alternative?” This reaction—in addition to being somewhat inconsistent with Rep. Pompeo’s past remarks claiming that the hunger strike did not put detainees’ health at risk and they had actually “put on weight”—is a caricature of the Senator’s, the Task Force’s, and the medical community’s position.
No one wants the detainees to die. This includes the detainees themselves. Hunger strikers are rarely suicidal, and if detainees do become acutely suicidal, they need mental health treatment, not just force-feeding in restraints. (To date, no Guantanamo detainee has died from medical complications of hunger striking. According to autopsy reports, seven prisoners have killed themselves in Guantánamo to date—Adnan Latif, Haji Nassim, Muhammad al-Hanashi, Abdul Rahman Al Amri, Yasser Talal Al Zahrani, Mani Al Utaybi and Ali Abdullah Ahmed. At least two more have attempted suicide in recent months.)
The Constitution Project’s report contains a section on “Ideal Management of Hunger Strikes.” Task Force medical expert Dr. Gerald Thomson gives further details in this video, beginning at approximately 35:00.
Senator Feinstein, recognizing that the Defense Department is unlikely to reverse itself and completely adopt the standards in the Malta Declaration, simply asks DoD “to reevaluate the force-feeding policies…and put in place the most humane policies possible.” That is long overdue.
It is easy to dismiss arguments over the precise means by which detainees are tube-fed as trivial. But the only possible legal or moral justification for force-feeding is to preserve detainees’ lives. If it is being carried out in a needlessly harsh, painful, punitive fashion, that justification disappears. And for the 44 detainees currently being force-fed in restraint chairs twice a day—some of whom who have been force-fed in this manner every day for years at a time—I doubt the details are trivial.
The following is a collection of first hand accounts and primary sources on force-feeding at Guantánamo:
Additional sources (including declarations from prison officials defending force feeding and the use of restraint chairs) are quoted in the Task Force report’s section on the medical response to previous hunger strikes.
These accounts are not easy to read, and this is not an easy issue. I am sure that not everyone who reads them will reach the same conclusions as the Task Force did, but whether we agree or not we should at least be aware of exactly what is going on in our name. Senator Feinstein and the intelligence committee staff deserve credit for looking closely at this issue, when it’s much easier to look away.
The views expressed in this blog post are not necessarily those of TCP, its committees, or boards.