Organ donation in the United States prison population

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Organ donation in the United States prison population is the donation of biological tissues or organs from incarcerated individuals to living recipients in need of a transplantation.

General Prison Population[edit]

As Donors[edit]

Prisons typically do not allow inmates to donate organs to anyone but immediate family members. There is no law against prisoner organ donation; however, the transplant community has discouraged use of prisoner's organs since the early 1990s due to concern over prisons' high-risk environment for infectious diseases.[1] Physicians and ethicists also criticize the idea because a prisoner is not able to consent to the procedure in a free and non-coercive environment,[2] especially if given inducements to participate. However, with modern testing advances to more safely rule out infectious disease and by ensuring that there are no incentives offered to participate, some have argued that prisoners can now voluntarily consent to organ donation just as they can now consent to medical procedures in general. With careful safeguards, and with over 2 million prisoners in the U.S., they reason that prisoners can provide a solution for reducing organ shortages in the U.S.[3]

While some have argued that prisoner participation would likely be too low to make a difference, one Arizona program started by Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio encourages inmates to voluntarily sign up to donate their heart and other organs.[4] As of mid-2012, over 10,000 inmates had signed up in that one county alone.[5]

As Recipients[edit]

In the United States, prisoners are not discriminated against as organ recipients and are equally eligible for organ transplants along with the general population. In Estelle v. Gamble, decided in 1976, the U.S. Supreme Court[6] ruled that withholding health care from prisoners constitutes "cruel and unusual punishment". United Network for Organ Sharing, the organization that coordinates available organs with recipients, does not factor a patient's prison status when determining suitability for a transplant.[7][8] An organ transplant and follow-up care can cost the prison system up to one million dollars.[8][9] If a prisoner qualifies, a state may allow compassionate early release to avoid high costs associated with organ transplants.[8] However, an organ transplant may save the prison system substantial costs associated with dialysis and other life-extending treatments required by the prisoner with the failing organ. For example, the estimated cost of a kidney transplant is about $111,000.[10] A prisoner's dialysis treatments are estimated to cost a prison $120,000 per year.[11]

Because donor organs are in short supply, there are more people waiting for a transplant than available organs. When a prisoner receives an organ, there is a high probability that someone else will die waiting for the next available organ. A response to this ethical dilemma states that felons who have a history of violent crime, who have violated others’ basic rights, have lost the right to receive an organ transplant, though it is noted that it would be necessary "to reform our justice system to minimize the chance of an innocent person being wrongly convicted of a violent crime and thus being denied an organ transplant"[12]

Death Row Inmates[edit]

The practice of death row inmates donating organs while alive follows closely to that of their more general inmate counterparts.[13] Where they differ is in their inability have their organs donated following their execution. Although no law specifically forbids death row inmates from donating organs postmortem, as of 2013 all requests by death row inmates to donate their organs after execution have been denied by states. Additionally there is debate about whether current organ donation guidelines, outlined in the National Organ Transplant Act of 1984 and the Uniform Anatomical Gift Act, implicitly prohibit death row inmates from being organ donors.[13]

Questions regarding the benefits, practicality, morality and ethics of allowing death row inmates to donate their organs postmortem have garnered notable attention following two highly publicized events: an editorial by condemned prisoner Christian Longo published in the New York Times advocating for the right of fellow death row inmates to donate their organs, and the request by death row inmate Gregory Scott Johnson to have his execution stayed until he could donate a portion of his liver to his debilitated sister.[13]

The answers to these questions have been variably debated by the public, professional medical organizations, and bioethicists. A limited number of opinion polls have indicated broad favor for the practice within both the general public and organ recipients.[13] In contrast transplant and medical societies have generally opposed the practice, and bioethicists have been divided.[13]


Organ donation has the potential to greatly improve quality of life as well as prevent death in patients with end-stage organ failure. There is an endemic shortage of organ donors within the US, resulting in an immediate and persistent need for additional, suitable organ donors. Death row inmates are a possible source of additional organs. However, the quality and amount of organs that death row inmates can potentially contribute is debated, but would definitely not remove more than a small percentage of people on transplant waiting lists.[13]

Practical Barriers[edit]


The same reasons that make the general prison population less suitable to be organ donors—poor health and increased chance of infectious disease—also apply to death row inmates.[13] However, due to the preplanned nature of executions and lengthy time periods before they are carried out death row inmates have a greater potential to be screened thoroughly beforehand.[13] Additionally many death row inmates are in isolation from the general population, reducing their chances of having contracted a communicable disease.

Other factors, however, variably decrease the suitability of death row inmates as organ donors. The average age of people on death row is over 50, and chronic medical conditions such as diabetes and hypertension are common.[13] Potentially half of death row inmates would be unsuitable for organ donation.[13]

Medical constraints

The primary method of execution in the US is via lethal injection which generally involves the administration of three drugs: sodium thiopental, a sedative to induce unconsciousness, pancuronium bromide (Pavulon), a muscle relaxant to cause respiratory arrest, and potassium chloride to trigger cardiac arrest.[14] Organ donation following this method of lethal injection is often compared to donation after circulatory death (DCD). Similar to DCD organ donation following lethal injection faces the challenge of gathering organs before they become unusable due to hypoxia. Both the American Medical Association and the American Society of Anesthesiology oppose their members from participating in executions, although their abilities to sanction members for doing so are limited.[15] In order to avoid the transplanting physician's involvement in the death of the inmate, the cause of death must be determined to be from lethal injection, and not from the removal of the patients organs. This means that after lethal injection, the medical examiner waits 10–15 minutes to test for sign of cardiac activity before pronouncing them dead.[13] During this time hypoxia destroying the organs becomes a serious issue, but removal of the organs any earlier risks making the removal of the inmates organs the cause of death and not the lethal injection.[13]

Additionally the facilities that oversee executions are not equipped to handle the organ removal surgery. Revamping these facilities to be able to handle such surgeries would be very costly.[13] This leaves two other options, changing the location of execution to a hospital, or moving the inmate to the hospital after their execution. The first option would be difficult due to hospitals not wanting to oversee executions, and the second option risks further hypoxia of the organs during the time it takes to transport the inmate.[13]

Moral and Ethical Considerations[edit]

Some considerations for organ donation from those on death row mirror those of general prison population. Indirect coercion, and mental stress can possibly impair the ability of a death row inmate to make a fully informed decision.[13] Becoming an organ donor may influence the appeals process, where sympathy or the chance of another individual benefiting from the inmates death may come into consideration. Additionally there is fear that the possibility of organ donation could influence the judgement jurors who may weigh the possibility of someone being able to live at the expense of the accused when deciding their verdict.[13] Thus, whether or not depriving death row inmates the ability to donate their organs is protecting their rights, or stripping them away, continues to be debated.[13]

The argument has also been made that justice would not be served if an inmates death is seen as an act of redemption by allowing them to donate their organs.[13] Supporters of this argument believe that positive news coverage leading up to the execution would distract from the crimes they committed and cause emotional distress to the family and friends of victims of the inmate. One possible solution to this could be to make organ donation anonymous. Several counterarguments have been made ranging from the belief that the death penalty does not serve justice, to the belief that depriving someone the ability to seek redemption before they die is inhumane, and finally to the belief that while allowing organ donation may undermine justice it is ultimately outweighed by the benefit of helping other lives.[13]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Guidelines for Preventing HIV Through Transplantation of Human Tissue and Organs, CDC Recommendations and Reports, May 20, 1994 /43(RR-8); 1–17.
  2. ^ "Prisoner organ donation proposal worrisome". American Medical News. 2007-04-09. Retrieved 2009-12-20. 
  3. ^ – Organization established to advocate for organ donations from prisoners.
  4. ^ "Teaching to Have a Heart". Committee to Re-Elect Joe Arpaio 2008. Retrieved 2008-10-20. [dead link]
  5. ^ – See Maricopa County's "I DO" program.
  6. ^ Estelle v Gamble 429 U.S. 97, 97 S. Ct. 285 50l Ed 2d251 [1976]
  7. ^ "U.S. Statement On Prison Status and Organ Allocation". United Network for Organ Sharing. 2002-06-02. Archived from the original on September 26, 2006. Retrieved 2009-12-20. 
  8. ^ a b c Wiegand, Steve (January 25, 2002). "State inmate gets new heart; 'Medically necessary care' is required by law, an official says". The Sacramento Bee. 
  9. ^ "Prison inmate awaits organ transplant" (PDF). Association of Washington Cities. Retrieved 2009-12-20. 
  10. ^ Attack of the Clones...And the Issue of the Clones, 3 Colum. Paul Lesko and Kevin Buckley – Sci. & Tech L. Rev. 1, 19 (2002)
  11. ^ Killer in Need of a Kidney Starts Ethics Row, Lee Douglas – Chicago Tribune, May 29, 2003, at 10.
  12. ^ Perry, David L. "Should Violent Felons Receive Organ Transplants?". Markkula Center for Applied Ethics. Retrieved 2009-12-20. 
  13. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s Lin, Shu S.; Lauren Rich; Jay D. Pal; Robert M. Sade (July 2012). "Prisoners on Death Row Should be Accepted as Organ Donors". Author manuscript; available in PMC. The Annals of Thoracic Surgery. pp. 93(6): 1773–1779. doi:10.1016/j.athoracsur.2012.03.003. Retrieved 6 September 2013. 
  14. ^ "Lethal injections lead doctors to break medical oath". Amnesty International. 4 October 2007. 
  15. ^ "Opinion 2.06 - Capital Punishment". American Medical Association. Retrieved 21 September 2013.