Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour's decision to commute the prison sentences of two sisters drew wide attention in part because their cause has been embraced by civil rights activists. But an unusual aspect of the arrangement is also drawing scrutiny: Barbour said his action was "conditioned on" one sister donating a kidney to the other.
The case involves sisters serving double life sentences for armed robbery convictions. Barbour agreed this week to suspend their sentences in light of the poor health of 38-year-old Jamie Scott, who requires regular dialysis. The governor said in a statement that 36-year-old Gladys Scott's release is conditioned on her giving a kidney to her inmate sibling.
"The Mississippi Department of Corrections believes the sisters no longer pose a threat to society," Barbour said in the statement. "Their incarceration is no longer necessary for public safety or rehabilitation, and Jamie Scott's medical condition creates a substantial cost to the State of Mississippi. . . . Gladys Scott's release is conditioned on her donating one of her kidneys to her sister, a procedure which should be scheduled with urgency."
Some medical ethicists are concerned about the role of the organ donation in the Scotts' release. Barbour's spokesman Dan Turner said the contingency was Gladys Scott's idea.
"It was something that she offered," Turner said. "It was not something that the governor's office or Department of Corrections or the parole board said, 'If you do this, we would do this.' It was not held as a quid pro quo. She offered."
Gladys Scott will not be forced to return to prison if for some reason she cannot donate the organ, the governor's office said. Medical ethicists say they're still concerned, even if the donation is voluntary.
"If the sister belongs in prison, then she should be allowed to donate and return to prison, and if she doesn't belong in prison, then she should have her sentence commuted whether or not she is a donor," said physician Michael Shapiro, chief of organ transplantation at Hackensack University Medical Center in New Jersey and chair of the United Network for Organ Sharing's ethics committee.
NAACP President Benjamin Jealous, who met with Barbour about the sisters' case and has pushed for their release, said the governor's office has made it clear Gladys Scott will not go back to prison if her kidney is not a match. Both sisters will follow traditional parole release procedures.
"This is a shining example of how governors should use their commutation powers," Jealous said. "At the end of the day, the most important thing is that they are free and reunited with their families. This is a day when the right thing is being done."
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