A proposal to allow Massachusetts prisoners to donate organs and bone marrow to reduce the length of their sentences raises deep ethical and legal questions about the undue pressure this idea could put on prisoners desperate for freedom.
The bill — which faces a tough battle in the state House of Representatives — may run afoul of federal law, which prohibits buying or selling human organs or trading them for "valuable consideration."
It also raises questions about how prisons could adequately care for the health of inmates undergoing surgery to donate organs. Critics call the idea coercive and dehumanizing, even though one of the bill's promoters sees the measure as a response to the excessive incarceration of people of Hispanic and black descent, and the need to match donors in those communities.
“The bill sounds like something out of a dystopian novel,” said Kevin Ring, president of Families Against Mandatory Minimum Sentencing, a Washington, DC-based group that advocates for criminal justice reform. “Promoting organ donation is good. Reducing excessive prison sentences is also good. Combining both is perverse."
The bill would create a Bone Marrow and Organ Donation Program within the state Department of Corrections to allow incarcerated individuals to receive a reduction in their sentence of between 60 days and one year on the condition that they have donated bone marrow or organs.
Democratic state Rep. Judith Garcia, one of the bill's sponsors, said she filed in response to what she called health disparities stemming from the "vicious cycle of wrongful incarceration and excessive policing of Black and Hispanic communities."
Black and Hispanic communities are at higher risk for health problems that could require organ donation, and discriminatory incarceration rates remove many potential donor matches from the pool, leading to longer waiting lists for African-Americans compared to with white people, he added.
Without a doubt, the need for life-saving organs is great: there are more than 4,600 people in Massachusetts and nearly 106,000 in the United States awaiting organ transplants. Twenty-eight percent of Massachusetts residents identify as black, Hispanic, or Latino, according to data compiled by the Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network.