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Inmate hunger strikes rarely require force-feeding

FARGO — While a white supremacist jailed in the western part of the state has refused to eat, officials here say getting an inmate to end a hunger strike can ultimately spiral into a lengthy legal process.

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In most instances, the inmate simply wants to be heard, said Sgt. Tara Morris of the Cass County Sheriff’s Department.

But in the rarest of cases, an elongated hunger strike could lead to jail officials getting a court order to civilly commit the inmate and place him or her in a hospital, where force-feeding could take place.

“That could happen, but that’s a long ways down the road,” said Bret Burkholder, administrator for the Grand Forks County Correctional Center. “And an individual could still refuse medical treatment. You would have to probably prove that they’re incompetent to make that decision.”

At that point, Burkholder said it’s out of his hands and pushed onto the state’s attorney, who needs to prove to a court that the inmate is mentally unable to make health care decisions for himself or herself.

White supremacist Craig Cobb, 62, had not eaten for nine days since arriving at the Mercer County Jail before he was taken to a Beulah clinic for a medical evaluation and referred to the State Hospital on Wednesday, Mercer County Sheriff Dean Danzeisen told KXMB-TV in Bismarck.

In an interview with The Associated Press, Cobb said he was not protesting his imprisonment, though he does contest the charges. He claimed to be seeking spiritual enlightenment. He is drinking water, the AP reported.

It was not clear Friday if Cobb had been civilly committed. A search Friday of North Dakota’s online civil court database showed no filings pertaining to Cobb, and neither the prosecuting attorney, Todd Schwarz, nor Cobb’s attorney, Blake Hankey, could be reached for comment. Mercer County Sheriff Dean Danzeisen was also unavailable Friday.

Cobb has been jailed without bail since his arrest Nov. 17 on several felony terrorizing charges, accused of approaching residents with loaded shotguns in Leith, the small town he’s attempting to make an all-white enclave. Leith is about 50 miles southwest of Bismarck.

It’s “extremely rare” for an inmate to refuse food for a week or longer, said Burkholder, adding that the longest hunger strike he’s seen lasted three weeks.

“That individual lost a number of pounds, but eventually we did get them to eat again, and most people don’t get anywhere near that long,” he said.

Hunger strikes that last only a couple of days are more common in Cass and Grand Forks counties, although they’re still fairly rare. Burkholder said either county probably sees one or two a year.

Generally, once an inmate has been on a declared hunger strike or simply declined to eat for 72 hours, medical staff are called into the jails to monitor the vitals of that inmate on a daily basis.

The inmate is also closely watched. In Grand Forks, a striking inmate is sent to an isolation room, and the jail staff controls all food and water the inmate receives, even shutting off the water in the person’s cell, Burkholder said.

“They are closely watched to ensure that no food is flushed down a toilet or anything, and that’s another reason why water is shut off,” he said.

Health staff also educates the inmate about what happens to the body as it starves, Burkholder said.

In Minnesota, if strikes go on for longer than just a few days, it gets a bit more complicated for jail and legal staff, said Clay County Attorney Brian Melton.

Inmates deemed mentally stable are allowed to refuse medical treatment and food, “even when doing so may be injurious to their health or threaten their life,” Melton said, reading from the Minnesota Department of Corrections protocol for handling hunger strikes.

“So, you provide them information to make sure they understand the consequences of their actions (and) closely monitor them,” Melton said.

In his 15 years with Clay County, Melton said he’s never heard of an inmate hunger-striking or been called upon to consult for such an issue.

Cass County hasn’t had any hunger strikes last an extraordinarily long time, Morris said. After 72 hours of food refusal, Cass County jail officials will interview the inmate, and that’s usually when the strike ends, Morris said.

“They haven’t had any that have gone that far” to civil commitment, Morris said. “Typically, people kind of give in or cave, or they’re heard and then the protest kind of stops.”

While Cobb has said that he is refusing food so that he can martyr himself for his white supremacist cause, Burkholder said the reasons inmates go on hunger strikes are many.

He’s seen people striking against “the whole legal system,” those who believe they are incarcerated unlawfully. Burkholder has also seen inmates refusing food because their girlfriend or boyfriend broke up with them.

“They are trying to make a point to someone, and it can be for a number of different reasons,” he said.

Erik Burgess
Erik Burgess covers city and county government for The Forum. He started as the paper's night reporter in 2012, after graduating from Hamline University in St. Paul, Minn. He was born and raised in Grand Forks, N.D., and also spent time interning at the Grand Forks Herald.  Have a comment to share about a story? Letters to the editor should include author’s name, address and phone number. Generally, letters should be no longer than 250 words. All letters are subject to editing. Send to
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