Gladys and Jamie Scott, two sisters who have been serving life sentences in jail for 16 years now after their 1994 conviction on charges of armed robbery, are being released on “an indefinite suspension of sentence,” which is “tantamount to early parole,” announced Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour on Dec. 29. However, the special condition placed on their release is calling attention from all sides of the political spectrum: Gladys will have to donate a kidney to Jamie, her older sister.

Jamie requires dialysis treatment, an expense which costs the state of Mississippi almost $200,000 a year, and is in need of a kidney transplant. AOL news reported that Chokwe Mumuba, the sisters’ attorney, admitted that the condition “does sound a little barbaric,” but that Gladys was the one to initiate the voluntary offer, when she included it in her appeal for early parole. Neither has complained about the conditions of their parole, although others have criticized the agreement.

Governor Barbour released a statement about his decision, reproduced here from a WCBI article.

“To date, the sisters have served 16 years of their sentences and are eligible for parole in 2014. Jamie Scott requires regular dialysis, and her sister has offered to donate one of her kidneys to her. The Mississippi Department of Corrections believes the sisters no longer pose a threat to society. Their incarceration is no longer necessary for public safety or rehabilitation, and Jamie Scott’s medical condition creates a substantial cost to the State of Mississippi.

The Mississippi Parole Board reviewed the sisters’ request for a pardon and recommended that I neither pardon them, nor commute their sentence. At my request, the Parole Board subsequently reviewed whether the sisters should be granted an indefinite suspension of sentence, which is tantamount to parole, and have concurred with my decision to suspend their sentences indefinitely.

Gladys Scott’s release is conditioned on her donating one of her kidneys to her sister, a procedure which should be scheduled with urgency.”

Arthur Caplan, the director of the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania, said in an interview with MSNBC that it was the first time he had ever encountered this type of situation. “When you volunteer to give a kidney, you’re usually free and clear to change your mind right up to the last minute,” he said, expressing doubts as to the ethics of the deal.

Chief of organ transplants at Hackensack University Medical Center in New Jersey and the chair of the ethics committee at the United Network for Organ Sharing, Dr. Michael Shapiro, told MSNBC that he does not think the organ transplant should be a condition of release either. “The simple answer to that is you can’t pay someone for a kidney,” Shapiro said. “If the governor is trading someone 20 years for a kidney, that might potentially violate the valuable consideration clause,” which prohibits people from trading organs for other items, namely freedom, in this case.

The whole other side of this issue is that the women’s trial and the severity of their sentences has been contested for a long time by the ACLU and other civil rights groups, who have posited that the women’s African-American heritage contributed to their conviction in the state of Mississippi. The total money they were believed to have stolen was $11, which seems wildly out of proportion with the double life sentences they each received.

However, I think the question of their alleged guilt, or of whether they deserve the sentences they got, is irrelevant to the question of whether the terms of their release are ethical and/or constitutional. So, tackling the latter question, no, I have serious qualms about a system whereby people can be rewarded by the government for giving up body parts. Parole is supposed to be granted on whether the defendants have reformed and/or present a threat to society. Sometimes medical problems are taken into account, such as in the case of a defendant who is expected to pass away soon and would like to spend his last months with his family, but never before in the case of a healthy patient, as is being done for Gladys. Gladys could surely donate the kidney voluntarily but still remain in prison, so there is no connection between her appeal and her sister’s health. Her decision and that of the state should be decided on completely different bases, and should not be dependent on one another. In addition, practical questions have surfaced such as what will happen if the doctors do not think their kidneys will be a match (beyond matching blood type which they have already done), or if Jamie chooses not to accept the kidney. The governor has brushed these questions off, saying they will be decided as they come up.

Another important question is whether the state should take into account the cost of upkeep its prisoners require when deciding parole. It seems a very flawed system if unhealthy criminals would be released because they are costing the state too much money to take care of them. No one has said that this was the basis for the governor’s decision, but he did reveal the monthly cost of Jamie’s treatment in relation to their release. I would prefer if the state were to treat criminals as need-blind (I wish Brandeis would too), since the government shouldn’t free them simply because of economic constraints.

One comment on “Freedom for the price of a kidney”

  1. Art Says:

    Gladys should be possibly released. She is giving the gift of a life, but Jamie, an individual already judged to be deserving of punishment is simply taking more.