How Haley Barbour’s Freedom-for-Kidney-Deal for Scott Sisters Makes U.S. Like China

In making Gladys Scott’s prison release conditional on the donation of her kidney to her sister, the Mississippi governor sets a dangerous precedent, and flouts the law.
January 7, 2011 |

On Friday, the State of Mississippi and Gov. Haley Barbour released two sisters from prison as part of an organ-donor deal done in callous disregard for organ transplant law and transplantation ethics. While no one with a modicum of compassion would object to the suspension of the sisters’ unduly harsh sentence, the suspension demands that one sister trade a bodily organ for her freedom.

But despite major protests by the transplant community, Barbour and the state refused to change the terms of the prisoners’ release. It now remains to be seen if the U.S. attorney general will enforce the law, and whether the United Network for Organ Sharing — the entity responsible for overseeing transplants — will ensure that no hospital violate the provisions of the 1984 National Organ Transplant Act by accepting one of the sisters as donor when there is suspicion that she has received what the law calls “valuable consideration in return for donating her kidney. Lack of compliance with the law could open the door to coercive practices in transplantation where prisoners are concerned.

Gladys and Jaime Scott went to a Mississippi prison on a life sentence in 1994 after their conviction for committing an armed burglary which netted the then-teens $11. On December 30, 2010, Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour suspended the life sentences, but one sister’s release is contingent on her giving a kidney to the other.

There’s no doubt that a life sentence for an $11 robbery — even one for which they were convicted of hitting the victims over the head with a shotgun before making off with 11 bucks — was extreme, and parole after 16 years in jail is long overdue.

What is not sensible, as well as illegal and unethical, is demanding that one sister donate her kidney to the other, even if the sister says she would have done so anyway. Barbour and the parole board, it seems, were swayed as much by the cost to the prison system of the daily dialysis Jamie needed as by any sense that the verdict and sentence were unjust.

The sisters’ cause was championed by the NAACP which lauded the decision to release them. Their civil rights lawyer is actually the one that offered the kidney deal as a way to convince the reluctant governor and prison authorities to release both women. A classic case of passionate conviction for a good outcome ignoring the dangerous implications for some other issue.

According to the Associate Press, Barbour spokesman Dan Turner said that Jamie Scott was released because she needs the transplant. He said Gladys Scott’s release is contingent on her agreement to donate her kidney. The parole board agreed to an indefinite suspension of their sentences, which is different from a pardon  in that it comes with conditions and can be revoked. If, after her release, Gladys does not go ahead with the transplant, she can go back to jail.

According to USA Today, “It is unclear whether Gladys Scott is an organ match for her sister or whether she has health issues that could make the procedure risky.” Barbour has refused to say what will happen if circumstances prevent Gladys from donating her kidney to her sister.

Now, perhaps there is a humanitarian bone on Barbour’s body, but it sounds far more like a state official who just wants to get an expensive prisoner off his hands. Jaime’s dialysis costs the state $200,000 a year. Budget cuts abound and health care — including transplants — is not immune from the knife. This past October, Arizona Governor Jan Brewer cut state funding for certain kinds of pancreas, liver, heart, lung, and bone-marrow transplants.

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