Mass. bill would reduce prison time in exchange for donated organs

HD.3822, introduced last month by two Democratic state legislators, raises ethical and legal concerns since the National Organ Transplant Act forbids the exchange of a donation for value. 

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Prisoners in Massachusetts could have the opportunity to shorten their sentences if they agree to donate their organs.

According to Boston.com, incarcerated people who donate bone marrow or organs could have their sentences reduced by two months to a year under HD.3822, a bill introduced in the Massachusetts State House last month by Democratic state Reps. Carlos González and Judith García.

González said he hopes to increase the odds of survival for one of his friends — a father of three who is on dialysis and has stage 4 renal failure — and anyone else who may be in a similar life-or-death situation.

Prisoners organ donation
incarcerated people in Massachusetts who donate bone marrow or organs could have their sentences reduced by two months to a year under the bill HD.3822. (Photo: Adobe Stock)

“We must provide every person who is incarcerated with the guidance of medical experts and advocates,” said the lawmaker, Boston.com reported, “in order to ensure them the same rights and opportunities that every individual in Massachusetts has to save the life” of a relative or friend.

If passed, HD.3822 would create an organ and bone marrow donation program within the Massachusetts Department of Correction that would be run by a committee of officials from MADOC, experts in organ donation and defenders of prisoners’ rights. The Department of Correction would not profit from donations; instead, the institutions that would benefit would cover the expenses.

However, the incentive for those behind bars raises ethical and legal concerns since the National Organ Transplant Act forbids the exchange of a donation for value, which, in their case, would be a reduced prison sentence. 

The United Network for Organ Sharing, which oversees the nation’s transplantation program, maintained in 2014 that any law or proposal allowing a person to swap an organ for a reduced sentence — particularly from death to life in prison — was concerning for numerous reasons. They said, for example, that if sentence reductions were to only apply to donations volunteered rather than contributions offered, the legislation would then discriminate against people determined to be medically inappropriate for contribution.

Michael Cox, executive director of Black and Pink Massachusetts, a prison abolition group, said he immediately viewed HD.3822 as “unethical” and “depraved.” He believes the bill will fail as is, drawing on his experience in the correctional system to explain why earning credit-based early release is challenging, as demand outpaces availability.

People behind bars are “highly stigmatized and extremely vulnerable,” Cox said, according to Boston.com. “And so to incentivize the selling of your body parts in exchange for the most precious commodity in the world — which is time on this earth, and your freedom — was just so appalling.”

González pointed out that individuals of color had a higher chance of developing diabetes and heart disease, mentioning other coexisting conditions that increase the likelihood of organ failure for Black and Hispanic people and the need for donors.

He said a successful strategy to raise the possibility such patients would receive vital care is necessary to widen the pool of potential donors.

“In my view, there is no compelling reason to bar inmates from this,” González said, Boston.com reported. “One of our goals is to provide information and education on the disproportionate number of Blacks and Latinos dying while waiting for donors.”

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