Inmates donating organs: Bill would formalize the process

By Andrew Adams and Linda Williams | Posted - Jan 31st, 2013 @ 8:15am

SALT LAKE CITY — A bill introduced at the Utah Legislature would formalize a policy that allows inmates to sign up to be organ donors.

Steven Gehrke, public information officer for the Utah Department of Corrections, said inmates won't be rewarded for signing up as donors under HB26.

"We make it very clear to an inmate up front that they'll not gain anything. They have no expectations, there will not be any perks," Gehrke said. "On the other hand, they have no expectations to be punished in any way if they don't want to be an organ donor."

Inmates will have to opt into the program. Gehrke said new inmates will have three options.

At least it kind of gives them that peace of mind that they've paid society back in some way.

–Steve Gehrke, Dept. of Corrections

"They can opt in to be an inmate donor. They can opt out, say ‘I don't want to donate.' Or they can say, ‘I'm already a member of the organ donation registry," Gehrke explained.

Gehrke said for many inmates this is a chance to make amends.

"There are many inmates who are constantly looking to give back to society in any way they can," he said. "They feel like sitting in prison doesn't really repay their debts."

Gehrke said there are about 7,000 inmates in the corrections system, and the number of deaths each year is slim, usually in the single digits.

"Even if you get one inmate who's eligible to donate an organ … you can make a case that it's made a difference in that person's life. It's made a world of difference in that person's life," Gehrke said.

He said any donated organs would be screened carefully for things like hepatitis.

Proposal's History
The bill's sponsor, Rep. Steve Eliason, R-Sandy, sponsored a similar bill during the 2012 Legislature. It was passed by the House but didn't make it to a final vote in the Senate before the session ended.

"When you're living in an incarcerated type world, the lifestyle tends to be harder. There's more opportunity for diseases in there, so those are things medical professionals look at very closely as they screen," Gehrke said.

Most death row inmates would not be eligible because medical experts say their organs would be tainted by lethal injection.

The program has been in effect for about a year. But the proposed legislation would make it an official policy that can't be thrown out with a new administration.

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