Food refusal as a protest tool. Hunger strikes in Belgian prisons during the interwar period

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In studies on resistance and protest, empirical research tends to concentrate on collective forms of action, those organised within social movements or by resistance groups. As such, research into the protest tactic of hunger strikes suffers from the same ailment. While there is ample historical study into hunger strikes by the suffragettes or the IRA, the actions of individuals without any connection to political movements have mostly been left unnoticed – although they tended to outnumber the former, especially in prisons where hunger strikes are in a way a measure of last resort. This paper investigates hunger strikes of individual detainees in Belgian prisons during the interwar period, a time of transformation in the penitentiary system and changings views on crime and the criminal. Through a critical reading of prisoner files of the prison of Forest, this study analyses the motivations of prisoners to start a hunger strike and the reactions and sanctions of the prison authorities. Findings reveal that going on a hunger strike, or simply not eating, was sufficient to label prisoners as mentally ill and transfer them into the psychiatric ward. If the prisoner could not be convinced to eat, the hunger strike was almost always terminated by forcibly feeding the detainee. As this was done to prisoners whose life was not in danger and with the brutal use of rectal feeding, I argue that force feeding was also a means to discipline detainees.
Original languageEnglish
Article number104448
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jan 2020

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© 2019 Elsevier Ltd

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