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Kidneys from felons? Prisoner organ donation spurs debate

By Kate Bennion

For the Deseret News

Published: Wednesday, April 24 2013 11:05 a.m. MDT

An inmate holds the bars at the Utah State Prison Wednesday, Feb. 6, 2013.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

After reading the story of a 10-year-old boy with a fatal muscle-wasting disease in the Deseret News on Feb. 20, Marco Guizar sent the newspaper a letter.

"I am a healthy 37-year-old male and am currently in the Davis County Correctional Facility," said the letter. "If this little boy can be saved by a heart donation, I would like to offer my heart to him."

Guizar is being held without bail for allegedly shooting at a truck on Legacy Highway and exchanging fire with police officers. Charged with aggravated attempted murder and assault, he faces 15-20 years in prison.

"I am a registered donor and believe I have every right to donate my organs to whomever I choose, and I can't think of any worthier cause or individual," wrote Guizar. "I have made a mess of my life … but what I can do is offer to make someone's life better and make someone's family happy."

Such a donation is illegal, and Guizar is unlikely to be a match for a 10-year-old. But according to the National Organ Donor Registry, 117,784 people are waiting for an organ in the U.S. Eighteen die each day while waiting. Almost 2 million people are incarcerated in prisons across the nation, and dozens are executed each year — a largely untapped population, some say, of potential donors.

There are significant legal and ethical hurdles, but inmates, states and families are still asking: why not let prisoners donate organs?

Signing up in the Southwest

The Maricopa County, Ariz., Sheriff's Office complex is one of the largest jail systems in the country. With an average daily inmate population of 7,700 and constant turnover, arrests and subsequent bookings are frequent. The county has an unusual addition to the booking process, however — one that's been in place since 2007.

"Whenever an inmate is booked into jail, they're given an opportunity to register as an organ donor," said Lt. Chris Luginbuhl. Somewhere between frisking and fingerprinting, those who opt in are given access to the state donor registry site, and then the criminal justice system process continues as usual.

As of Jan. 28 of this year, the office has registered 14,124 inmates for the state organ donor program. Those booked into the county jail are pre-sentence and pre-trial detainees or sentenced to a year or less. If they're released, they are no longer considered by the organ registry to be at high risk for health complications — and remain on the state organ donor registry.

Similar measures are taking off elsewhere. Texas and California allow for deceased donation from their inmates, and in January, state legislation passed unanimously in Utah that allows prisoners to voluntarily sign up for the donor registry, a move that was applauded by organ donation advocacy groups.

There are more than 100 million registered organ donors in the U.S., and the incarcerated population of 2 million may add only a drop to the bucket. However, for those in need of an organ, all it takes is one.

"Any way we can possibly expand the donor pool, we're in favor of," says Alex McDonald, director of public education for Intermountain Donor Services, which serves Utah, southeastern Idaho and western Wyoming. McDonald said that in a period of six weeks, 237 inmates have already registered to be organ donors in the state of Utah.

If an inmate dies and his or her organs are transferrable, those on the waiting list are informed of the incarceration status of the donor and asked if they want to accept an organ.

"If they have a patient that's not terribly ill, they might say, 'Well, we're going to hold off until a non-prisoner organ comes along,’ ” says McDonald. "Whereas, a (more ill) patient might be willing to take that chance."

Disease, free choice and stigma

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