Massachusetts lawmakers propose prison organ-harvesting scheme

What would you give for your life?

What would you give for your freedom?

I periodically talk about the ways in which our society coerces people into accepting circumstances that they wouldn’t otherwise. Bad working conditions, insufficient pay, extortionate rent, little time in which to actually live – that’s the default for a growing number of people. The problem is that it gets so much worse.

The U.S. carceral system is rife with abuse, torture, rape, and murder, from inmates, sometimes, but from guards often. I don’t know what proportion of the U.S. public actively likes that our prisons are such horrific places, but there’s always a pretense that justice is somehow involved. After all, we don’t explicitly sentence anyone to rape or torture, right? We just sentence them to spend months, years, or their entire lives in a place where we know, for certain, that that happens.

And at the same time, prisoners are still expected to enrich the ruling class, through charging extortionate rates for booksfood, necessities, and even contact with family and loved ones. How much would you pay to talk to your spouse after a year apart? How much to talk to your children? How much to see the face of someone who you know – or at least hope – still loves you? What if you had the option to be tortured, for someone else’s benefit, to get your freedom a little bit faster?

Would you let the government take your organs for a shorter sentence?

SECTION 1. Chapter 127 of the General Laws is hereby amended by adding the following text after the word “petition”:-

Section 170. (a) The Commissioner of the Department of Corrections shall establish a Bone Marrow and Organ Donation Program within the Department of Correction and a Bone Marrow and Organ Donation Committee. The Bone Marrow and Organ Donation Program shall allow eligible incarcerated individuals to gain not less than 60 and not more than 365 day reduction in the length of their committed sentence in Department of Corrections facilities, or House of Correction facilities if they are serving a Department of Correction sentence in a House of Corrections facility, on the condition that the incarcerated individual has donated bone marrow or organ(s).

(b) The Bone Marrow and Organ Donation Committee shall consist of five members: The Commissioner of the Department of Correction or their designee who will act as chair of the committee; the Medical Director of the Department of Corrections or their designee; a Bone Marrow and Organ Donation Specialist from a hospital within the Commonwealth or their designee; a representative of an organization advocating for bone marrow donations within the Commonwealth or their designee; and two appointments shall be made by the Governor to serve three-year terms and one of whom shall be a board member of an advocacy group advocating for the rights of incarcerated individuals, and one of whom shall be from the Massachusetts District Attorney’s Association. The Bone Marrow and Organ Donation Committee shall be responsible for the effective implementation and ongoing administration of the incarcerated individual Bone Marrow and Organ Donation program. The Bone Marrow and Organ Donation Committee shall also be responsible for promulgating standards of eligibility for incarcerated individuals to participate and the amount of bone marrow and organ(s) donated to earn one’s sentence to be commuted. Annual reports including actual amounts of bone marrow and organ(s) donated, and the estimated life-savings associated with said donations, are to be filed with the Executive and Legislative branches of the Commonwealth. All costs associated with the Bone Marrow and Organ Donation Program will be done by the benefiting institutions of the program and their affiliates-not by the Department of Correction. There shall be no commissions or monetary payments to be made to the Department of Correction for bone marrow donated by incarcerated individuals.

This bill has been sponsored by two Democrats from my former home state of Massachusetts – Carlos Gonsález and Judith A. Garcia, and personally I think support for it should immediately disqualify anyone from holding any power. If inmates want to donate organs, marrow, or blood, they should absolutely be able to, but tying it to a reduced sentence means that we’re now viewing organ harvesting as an acceptable punishment within our so-called justice system, same as prison time (no less than two months and no more than one year), or the fines some people are able to pay in lieu of prison time.

This is the kind of shit I’ve seen in dystopian, gritty scifi shows like Killjoys or Lexx. It’s the kind of stuff people say China does, when they want to wave away the fact that the “Land of the Free” locks up a much larger proportion of its population. I’m not sure there’s really much more to say about this. U.S. prisons are traumatic hellholes as a matter of policy, and both major parties have played a huge role not just in locking up so many people, but in ensuring that prison conditions stay horrific. They much prefer spending money on armed goons to punish you for speaking or acting out.

So I ask again? What would you give for your freedom?

The image shows Captain Barbossa from Pirates of the Caribbean, with a neon glowing hat brim, a popped collar with neon light bars on the inside, and a glowing VR-lookin visor thing. The text reads, “You best start believing in cyberpunk dystopias – you’re in one”

Hat tip to @NoCopsNoMasters for putting me onto this.


  1. Denise Loving says

    Sounds like the beginning of Larry Niven’s Known Space series, at least in the time of Gil “the arm” and at the time some of the early Earth colonies were established. As transplantation science is perfected, the death penalty is expanded to lesser crimes, to secure a supply of organs for the voters.

    I don’t think I’ve read those since about 1990, but I read them several times and they made an impression: maybe because they were among my favourite science fiction when I was a teenager in the 70s.

  2. says

    In Lexx, if memory serves, organs were harvested as punishment for various crimes, and fed to a giant space bug, so a little less topical. In Killjoys, there’s a penal colony on a remote section of a mining-ravaged moon, where the people there are given some drug that makes their organs regrow, and they pay their debt to the corporate oligarchy with regular donations – a debt that probably grows faster than it’s paid down, given how the rest of things in that show work. That show’s a lot more recent and a lot more about capitalism.

  3. xohjoh2n says


    In LEXX, the drive was to convict as many people as possible to harvest as much protein as possible to build the great ships they would use to dominate the universe. And do so in a way that they could use to fire up the population to support it.

    (In Pohl’s Gateway the poor allow their youthful tissue to be harvested by the rich who have struck lucky at the gateway to keep themselves in shape.)

  4. xohjoh2n says

    Oh, it *was*.

    Actually, my favourite episode is Brigadoom (S02E18) the musical. Then there’s the vampire stuff in S4 (“dead thing pie”). But the seasons definitely go from weird to weirder to even weirder to weirdest, not always in a good-story kind of way.

  5. silvrhalide says

    Given the general health and lifestyle choices (“choices”) of the incarcerated, only an idiot would want prisoner tissue/organs in the pipeline.
    The ban on gay or bi men donating blood or blood products was only recently lifted, and they can only donate if they have been monogamous. (If you are cishet, you can fuck like crazed weasels, so long as one of the people you are shagging isn’t a gay or bi man. Which just goes to show how deeply flawed the donation system is to begin with.)
    But suddenly, some bright bulb has a “solution” to the blood/organ/tissue shortage by letting male prisoners (female prisoners presumably can donate too, but their risks are different and frequently less) donate parts of themselves in exchange for shorter prison terms.
    This, in a system that deems personal sanitation items like toothbrushes a luxury but lets drug use, including injected drugs, and sexual assault run rampant through the incarceration system.
    So if you are on the outside and want to sell blood to live but aren’t monogamous, you are banned but the organ donation system is willing to take blood/tissue/organs from people with the worst healthcare and worst personal health practices in the world. Sure, that makes sense.

    Who, exactly, will these prisoner organs/tissue/blood be going too? Especially the organ donations? Will they be going into the general population or will the extra-special political donor friends be first in line? Even if they are going into the general population, how comfortable are we with donated biological products from the most questionable portion of the population going to kids, pregnant people or even to healthcare practitioners, ie. portions of the population that can readily infect other people–*lots* of other people?

    Other countries (China, Iran and India in particular) that allow organ donation for sale/profit have notoriously bad outcomes, both for the donors and recipients. There are entire villages in Nepal where no male over 14 have both kidneys–they are frequently lured to India, then either kidnapped and have a kidney surgically removed or go to India to sell a kidney for a pittance. The people in the Nepalese villages suffer, the donors suffer and the recipients frequently get less-than-ideal kidneys. (Happiness built on someone else’s unhappiness has a notoriously shaky foundation.) People who are desperate enough to sell a kidney are people who will not have a problem lying about their health status.

    The current US organ donor system allows a donor (or the donor’s family, in the event of brain death or permanent ongoing coma) to make *directed donations*, ie., the donor (or next of kin for the soon-to-be unplugged).
    How long do you think it will take before the prisoner population works out that they can make a donation, get the sentence reduction *and* direct a donation to a recipient who in turn will regularly make financial donations to said prisoner’s commissary account?
    How long do you think it will take for the gangs that functionally run prison life inside the prison to start preying on the other prisoners, essentially extorting them to “donate” an organ to get a reduced sentence to a directed recipient, who will in turn make regular financial deposits to the donor commissary, only to have said gangs extort the money from the organ donor’s commissary?
    (In case you are wondering, this has already happened with prisoners who have received economic impact payments [stimulus payments] while incarcerated.)
    The number of ways this is going to go off the rails, mostly badly and rapidly, staggers the imagination.

  6. GerrardOfTitanServer says

    Maybe there’s nothing wrong *in principle*. However, it is the most ridiculous slippery slope proposal and most abusable and corruptible that I have ever seen.

  7. says

    I would say there’s a great deal wrong “in principle”. If organ donation is an acceptable alternative to time served, then that both says that the people in question don’t actually need to be locked up for anyone’s safety, and>/em> it says that organ donation is an acceptable punishment under our legal system. This isn’t something that’s “ripe for abuse”, it is abuse.

  8. GerrardOfTitanServer says

    I’m personally against forced organ donation, but that is a minor reason why I’m against the policy. The major reason why I’m against the policy is the unimaginable possibility for abuse and corruption and the corrosive and corrupting effect that it would have on the criminal justice system and on society.

  9. GerrardOfTitanServer says

    PS: There are multiple “theories of justice”, aka “theories of punishment”. Confinement for the safety of others is one justification of punishment. Deterrence is another classic example which could be met by punishments other than confinement, such as cash fines, corporeal punishments, public shaming of one kind or another, etc.

  10. GerrardOfTitanServer says

    Surely there are some honest people with ethical reasons to support punishment, and surely those include at least “confinement for the safety of others”, “deterrence”, and “rehabilitation”. I am not defending the current US prison system. I hear the Scandinavian prisons are nice.

  11. says

    Deterrence doesn’t work, and I don’t believe anyone seriously thinks the U.S. prison system values rehabilitation.

    But yes, I take your point.

  12. GerrardOfTitanServer says

    Deterrence doesn’t work

    Wait what

    Like – at all? There is never a person who decides against committing a crime because of the fear of getting caught and suffering punishment such as incarceration or money fines?

  13. says

    I’m not interested in splitting hairs over whether anyone has ever been deterred by the punishment if caught. It’s a pointless argument and I think you know what I mean. Of course they have, but we are talking about the system as a whole, and on a systemic level, deterrence doesn’t work.

    That’s why throwing refugees in concentration camps doesn’t stop them from seeking refuge. That’s why closing the border just created a class of undocumented immigrants, rather than stopping that immigration. That’s why the drug war utterly failed. That’s why people still steal to survive.

    And crimes of passion? They are, by definition, not committed based on rational consideration of the outcomes. Honestly, crime driven by hunger or withdrawal are probably similar in that regard.

  14. GerrardOfTitanServer says

    Understood. I note my disagreement and say that I am convinced that deterrence plays a substantial role for some criminal offenses, but not all as you correctly observe.

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