Last January, a 31-year old California inmate serving 14 years for robbery received a heart transplant. The cost to taxpayers: More than $1.5 million, including follow-up care.
The episode angered Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez. “You have to wonder if a law-abiding, taxpaying citizen drew one last breath while Jailhouse Joe was getting a second wind,” Lopez wrote.
The 80,000 people on organ transplant lists in the United States raise a difficult question: Should convicted felons be on these lists at all?
No, says Doug Patton, a conservative newspaper columnist and founder of the Nebraska chapter of the Christian Coalition.
“In this age of anxiety over the ‘rights’ of every worthless, ungrateful and undeserving criminal, concern for the rights of those the Constitution was meant to protect have been lost in the shuffle,” Patton says.
But David Santacroce, clinical-assistant professor in the Michigan Clinical Law Program, says that the criteria for choosing transplant recipients are fair and appropriate.
“You don’t get a transplant any quicker because you’re a celebrity and you don’t get one any slower because you’re a prisoner,” he says. “You get one because of who you are and what your medical condition is and that includes social factors. But it’s a medical decision.”
Michael J. Steinberg, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan, says that the state has an obligation to care for those it imprisons.
“Americans have long understood that when the state takes away the liberty of one of its citizens, it becomes responsible for providing medical care — including care to save the person’s life,” he says. “The progress of a society is reflected in the way it treats its prisoners.”
Patton says he agrees that inmates should get health care, but that putting them high on transplant lists is unjust to others.
“Basic medical treatment is one thing, but I think most Americans would agree that prisoners — especially those serving life terms and those on death row — should be so far down the list for an organ transplant as to not even qualify. When did we go from a mentality of forfeiting one’s rights while incarcerated to demanding more rights than the average, law-abiding, taxpaying citizen?”
Hepatitis C sickens thousands, costs millions.
University of Michigan Clinical Law students sue for better testing and treatment. Tom Schram is co-chair of the National Writers Union of Southeast Michigan. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org