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Hospital staff decline to force-feed Maine inmate

BANGOR -- An inmate who was into an 18-day hunger strike was back in the Penobscot County Jail yesterday, after staff at Eastern Maine Medical Center refused to feed him despite a court order.

James Emerson, 23, who has been at the jail since April on charges of theft, burglary, and probation violations, has lost more than 25 pounds, or 20 percent of his body weight, after taking only small amounts of food and water.

Sheriff Glenn Ross, a jail chaplain, and Emerson's mother met with the inmate yesterday but did not persuade him to accept food, the sheriff said.

Emerson was transported to the hospital Friday evening under armed guard after an emergency hearing in which Superior Court Justice Andrew Mead issued a temporary restraining order requiring that the inmate be fed.

The case was apparently the first in Maine. The judge had to look to precedents from other states and the federal government involving the force-feeding of inmates. Force-feeding is most often done through a tube inserted into the stomach by way of the nose.

Ross said he was surprised and disappointed when Emerson was returned to the jail before midnight, without having been fed.

Dr. Niall McGarvey, the emergency room physician identified by Ross as the doctor attending to Emerson, declined to comment, on grounds of patient confidentiality.

But Jill McDonald, an Eastern Maine Medical Center spokeswoman, said hospitals generally perform procedures only with the patient's permission.

''We are not parties to court orders; we are under a different set of obligations," McDonald said.

Emerson, a maximum security inmate, was described at the court hearing as dehydrated and slowly losing blood pressure, and was at serious risk.

''He's getting a little sluggish. When he stands up, he's dizzy," said Al Cichon, a physician's assistant with Allied Resources for Correctional Health.

Ross said the only way that he can comply with the court order to provide Emerson with food is through the hospital. He said the medical center may have ''legal or professional reasons" to refuse to feed him, but that the restraining order protects all parties from civil or criminal liability.

Emerson's lawyer, Dale Thistle, said his client realized in recent weeks that he faces eight or more years in prison and decided that he wanted to die.

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