COLUMBIA, S.C. – Inmates in South Carolina could soon find that a kidney is worth 180 days.
Lawmakers are considering legislation that would let prisoners donate organs or bone marrow in exchange for time off their sentences.
A state Senate panel on Thursday endorsed creating an organ-and-tissue donation program for inmates. But legislators postponed debate on a measure to reduce the sentences of participating prisoners, citing concern that federal law may not allow it.
"I think it's imperative that we go all out and see what we can do," said the bills' chief sponsor, Democratic Sen. Ralph Anderson. "I would like to see us get enough donors that people are no longer dying."
The proposal approved by the Senate Corrections and Penology Subcommittee would set up a volunteer donor program in prisons to teach inmates about the need for donors. But lawmakers want legal advice before acting on a bill that would shave up to 180 days off a prison sentence for inmates who donate.
South Carolina advocates for organ donations said the incentive policy would be the first of its kind in the nation.
Federal law makes it illegal to give organ donors "valuable consideration." Lawmakers want to know whether the term could apply to time off of prison sentences.
"We want to make this work, we really do," said Republican Sen. John Hawkins. "But I want to make sure no one goes to jail for good intentions."
Mary Jo Cagle, chief medical officer of Bon Secours St. Francis Health System in Greenville, urged senators to find an allowable incentive.
"We have a huge need for organs and bone marrow," Cagle said.
But Melissa Blevins, executive director of Donate Life South Carolina, said any incentive would break the law and the principle behind donations.
"It really muddies the water about motive. We want to keep it a clearly altruistic act," she said.
Under the proposals, money for medical procedures and any prison guard overtime would be paid by the organ recipient and charitable groups. The state would also decide which inmates could donate.
Corrections Department Director Jon Ozmint said he believes inmates would donate even without the incentive.
"There are long-term inmates who would give if they knew a child was dying," he said. "They're lifers. They know they're going to die in prison."
More than 95,300 Americans are awaiting an organ transplant, according to the Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network. About 6,700 die each year.