Lawmakers Want Prisoners to Trade Their Organs and Bone Marrow for Freedom
Advocates are worried a new bill in Massachusetts could coerce prisoners into giving up body parts to reduce their sentences.
A new bill introduced in Massachusetts would allow bone marrow and organ donations from incarcerated people in exchange for a reduction in their sentences.
The bill establishing a “Bone Marrow and Organ Donation Program” was put forward by State Representatives Carlos González and Judith A. García on January 20. It would grant people held in Massachusetts Department of Corrections facilities a sentence reduction between 60 days and a year in exchange for the donations.
In a tweet announcing the bill, Representative García, who was sworn in earlier this month, posted a graphic saying that there is “currently no path to organ or bone marrow donation for incarcerated folks in MA—even for relatives.” The graphic says that the law would “restore bodily autonomy” to people who are incarcerated by letting them donate their organs. It also mentioned the long waitlist for organs. There are 4000 people waiting for organs in Massachusetts.
The bill was immediately criticized on social media due to the obvious ethical problems it creates: It is not hard to imagine that someone who is incarcerated would feel pressured to “volunteer” one of their organs in exchange for freedom.
“Incarceration is NOT a place of autonomy nor a place with adequate medical care. This is coercive and disrespectful,” one person replied to García’s tweet. “Prisoners should be able to donate life-saving bone marrow and organs if they wish, but incentivizing it through good time is coercive,” another person replied.
27.76 percent of people incarcerated in Massachusetts are Black and 29.23 percent are Latinx as of January 2023, despite making up 9.3 percent and 12.8 percent of the state’s population, respectively.
In an email to Motherboard, Jesse White, policy director of Prisoner Legal Services of Massachusetts, said the organization is in touch with the bill sponsors and “share many of the concerns being raised regarding the potential for coercion and impact of inadequate medical care in carceral settings.” White said many incarcerated people may want to donate organs to loved ones, who are more likely to be from groups suffering from health disparities. But the group said they are calling for policies that end “ongoing needless incarceration of so many who could live freely and safely in our communities” and which facilitate organ donations in a way that is not coercive.
Ultimately, PLS said, “we are all for maximizing freedoms and opportunities for incarcerated people to earn time off their sentences. However, this must be done in a way that bears no risks to health and safety.”
There have long been ethical questions surrounding organ donations from people who are incarcerated and whether even the perception of improved conditions would amount to coercion. There have also been roadblocks to incarcerated people who wish to donate to family members and people on death row who wish to donate their organs as a final act of contrition. Some prison systems, like Washington’s Department of Corrections, allow donations to an incarcerated person’s direct family member, as does the federal prison system.
In July, a Texas death row inmate petitioned for his execution to be delayed so that he could make an organ transplant.
In a statement to Motherboard, Representative González said “Hispanics and African Americans have higher rates of diabetes and heart disease” which puts them at a higher risk of organ failure. “Broadening the pool of potential donors is an effective way to increase the likelihood of Black and Latino family members and friends receiving life-saving treatment,” he said.
Gonzàlez said that providing guidance on organ donation would help prisoners by giving them agency. “An important part of helping incarcerated individuals to lead a successful life, after prison, is to restore their sense of dignity. Essential to restoring dignity is facilitating choice and respecting a person’s agency,” he said. “We must provide every person who is incarcerated with the guidance of medical experts and advocates in order to ensure them the same rights and opportunities that every individual in Massachusetts has to save the life of their mother, father, brother, sister, child or friend.”
He said he was open to changing the legislation so that it does not use sentence reductions as an incentive. “The same program could be established without a reduction in sentencing. We are open to having discussions, throughout the course of the legislative session, on whether a sentence reduction component is appropriate,” he said.
Request for comment from Representative Judith A. García was not returned by press time.