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This Death Row Inmate Is Dying to Donate His Organs

Why is it so difficult for willing prisoners to easily donate their healthy organs and tissues after they've been executed?

by Trent Reinsmith
Mar 26 2014, 11:00am

In 2001 Christian Longo killed his wife and his three young children and fled to Mexico. Once he was brought back to the US, he was convicted of those murders and placed on Oregon’s Death Row, where he has resided since 2003. He was once on the FBI's top-ten most wanted list, and James Franco is even going to play him in an upcoming movie.

Christian, now 40 and still in jail, is turning a new leaf. In an effort to give back to his community, he has decided to donate his organs upon his inevitable execution. The only problem is, due to the lack of an efficient prisoner donation protocol, he pretty much can't. Chris is even willing to forgo all appeals of his death sentence if he can donate his organs upon his execution. Still, he's been denied.

Through his Gifts of Anatomical Value from Everyone (G.A.V.E) organization, Chris is looking to change that. The mission of G.A.V.E is to remove the medical and ethical issues involved with prisoner organ and tissue donation and gain approval for some of the 2 million incarcerated individuals to donate. If successful, the organization will substantially reduce the number of people on waiting lists for organ and tissue donation (which is more than 121,000, according to the Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network).

I recently conducted an email interview with Longo about how he came to found G.A.V.E, the work his organization is doing, and the impact prisoner donation could have if certain ethical and political barriers were removed.

Image via FBI

VICE: What piqued your interest in prisoner organ donation?
Christian Longo: After watching a friend increasingly suffer from a degenerative disorder called scleroderma, it became apparent she would eventually need a kidney transplant. After being told by my prison system that consideration may only be given for donations to immediate family, I put together a proposal for my unique circumstances as a death row inmate. I offered to end my remaining appeals and face execution if my healthy body parts were able to be donated to those in need. My request was denied.

How surprising was it to find out you couldn’t donate?
It was a Spockian "that's illogical" moment followed by a fear that someone I cared about might not be able to find a suitable donor... which pissed me off.

When and why was the ban of prisoner donations instituted?
It's not a ban per se, but there's enough red tape that it might as well be. Due to inadequate testing, infections such as HIV/AIDS and Hepatitis C were being transplanted with the organs. Prisoners along with gay men, hemophiliacs, and intravenous-drug users were all listed in the CDC's donor exclusion recommendations.

What's changed since?
In 1994, the risk of contracting HIV was much greater in prison than it was for the general US population. I think the problem lies in testing methods. In the early 90s testing procedures were unable to detect the virus accurately. Now we have RNA testing, which can detect the virus within days of infection.

Who allows prisoners to sign up to donate organs? Any prisoner donations yet?
Utah became the first state to legislate the right of prisoners to be donors last year, and they now give inmates the opportunity to register as donors upon entry to prison. To date, about 1,000 of the 7,000 prisoners in Utah's correctional system have signed up. Texas and Maricopa County, Arizona, also allow prisoners to register as donors.

Thus far, I'm not aware of any registered inmates who have donated. The problem has been that even in states that technically allow donation, they only allow donations after death. Prison security issues slow this process down prohibitively, to a point of death for the organs... and any hopeful recipient. Until prison policies are adjusted accordingly, living donation opportunities, like kidneys and bone marrow, have to be considered.

What about societal aversion to donations from prisoners? And is that present on the recipient level?
Unofficial polls reflect that over 70 percent of respondents feel that prisoners should be able to donate. I encourage anyone to swing by any local dialysis clinic to ask if they would accept an inmate's organ, even one on death row.

What are the ethical and medical risks, if any, for these types of procedures?
Certainly, the care that can be taken to screen a confined prisoner is much greater than that of, say, an accident victim whose organs must be procured quickly. Ethically, so long as a prisoner is given the same counseling as non-prison donors, ensuring appropriate consent—the biggest gripe of ethicists—any ethical issues are easily resolved.

Is informed consent a real concern regarding prisoner donation?
The medical community and prison systems are still sore from the 70s, when it became apparent that prisoners were being used for medical experimentation. Even though prisoners were "volunteering," there was a paid incentive. That's why it's important that organ and tissue donation be offered without perks. No parole considerations. No pay. Not even special visitation.

How many lives could be saved using the organs of executed prisoners?
First off, organs and tissue from the nearly 2 million non–death row inmates would make the greatest dent by far, but the numbers of lives that could be saved by the executed are not insubstantial or insignificant. There are currently about 3,100 prisoners on death row in the US. There are about 45 executions per year, with roughly 1,400 executions since lethal injection was first used. Recent surveys have shown that roughly 80 percent of death row inmates would donate after their execution if given the option.

With a planned execution, you can maximize the amount of viable transplants and have recipients at the ready for every part—one heart, one pancreas, two kidneys, two lungs, two liver lobes, and up to 50 other transplantable parts. This could save or, at the very least, severely improve the lives of hundreds of people every year.

What about those who can't separate your past from your current mission?
I agree with the "gifts of a bad man bring no good with them" rationale unless that man can give in a way that does nothing to benefit him. A horrible past does not preclude positive acts, like a fight to donate healthy parts. However, I agree that I'm not the best person to tackle this issue. I was torn for years about how loud to shout. I'm a distraction. My presence adds unnecessary questions to the debate, like this one.

Worse, it stirs up the pain of those I've hurt. I would like nothing more than to quietly donate, even if it means facing my sentence to do so.

Tagged:
murder
death row
FBI
james franco
Prisoner
Vice Blog
G.A.V.E.
Gifts of Anatomical Value From Everyone
Chris Longo
organ donor
prisoner organ donation
Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network