Content warning: incarceration, enslavement, white supremacy, experimentation on adults and children, family separation, death from medical neglect, medical industrial complex, prison industrial complex, trauma, state violence
In 1949, an incarcerated white man in Sing-Sing Correctional Facility named Louis Boy volunteered—as much as one can “volunteer” while incarcerated—to have his circulation connected to a dying child’s, via plastic tubing. Boy’s heart would pump blood to both of them and the child’s blood would filter through Boy’s kidneys. This process was entirely new, a last ditch attempt to cure the girl’s leukemia. That Boy’s heart might not withstand the strain of pumping blood through two bodies, or that cancer cells from the child’s veins might enter Boy’s circulation, was seen as acceptable collateral damage.
The child died of her illness two weeks later, but Boy was celebrated in the media. The governor later commuted Boy’s life sentence in light of his “gift.” I use quotes here because the child’s doctors deliberately recruited participants for the potentially deadly experiment from among Sing-Sing’s captive audience, with their diminished power to say no. Boy and his wellbeing were afterthoughts of little consequence to the doctors, who were focused on saving the child; he reaped no medical benefits from the experiment.
Louis Boy was far from the only person in the U.S. to have been experimented on while incarcerated. The U.S.—which is home to less than 5% of the world’s population, but nearly 25% of all incarcerated people—has a long and horrific history of experimenting on unconsenting, incarcerated people.
Survivors of experimentation are disproportionately BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color), disabled, queer, and/or trans people held hostage by the criminal legal system. Scientists have also experimented upon people locked in the psychiatric hospitals, institutions and medical and educational facilities that have jailed disabled, mad, structurally impoverished, and/or socially non-conforming people throughout U.S. history. Even children have been experimented on, especially Black, Latinx, and Indigenous children, who continue to be removed from their families and entered into the carceral child “welfare” system at high rates. The researchers who led these cruel experiments have received scientific honors and public acclaim. Some remain in positions of authority today, while their unwilling participants continue to suffer health effects.
Like the dying child’s doctors, who didn’t bother recruiting experimental participants in the free world and instead went straight to Sing-Sing, U.S. scientific progress has often hinged on the inherent power imbalances of incarceration. Scientists have mined carceral settings with little to no oversight or regard for the wellbeing of incarcerated people. Up until the 1970s, about 90% of all new pharmaceutical products were tested on incarcerated people who one researcher described as “much cheaper than chimpanzees.”
The experiments conducted on incarcerated people are too numerous to describe fully here, but have included slathering incarcerated people’s skin with pesticides, deliberately causing scurvy, and specifically exposing incarcerated Black men to dioxin (a main ingredient in Agent Orange), asbestos, and other toxins. Institutionalized children have been exposed to radiation, hepatitis, high doses of LSD, and other horrors, with medication tested on kidnapped Native children in the notoriously genocidal boarding schools.
Experimentation on the incarcerated people most harmed by racism, ableism, and queer and trans antagonism maps directly to U.S. settler colonialism, eugenics and medical racism. All of these systems of oppression categorize BIPOC’s freedom struggles as disease conditions. Under white supremacy, the bodies of BIPOC and disabled people have always been curiosities and subjects of scientific study, never fully human. In fact, given this history , Boy’s story only stands out because he was white, presumably able-bodied, and ultimately released in exchange for what was done to him.
Now, over 70 years later, and under the shadow of mass incarceration’s cruelty, a Massachusetts bill threatens to further codify into law the belief that racialized incarcerated bodies are disposable. Proposed by self-described progressive Democrats, the bill’s publicity materials promise it will “restore bodily autonomy to incarcerated folks.” How? By “allowing” incarcerated people to donate organs and bone marrow in exchange for two to 12 months off their prison sentences, essentially trading freedom for body parts.
On the ground in Boston, community members and activists are disgusted. While we think the bill probably won’t pass, it sets a dangerous precedent of co-opting and watering down radical language and demands. I grew up in Boston and have lived here for three of my four decades. I remember the many uprisings, when we took to the streets to demand an end to white supremacy and state violence, even as police brutalized us, and disproportionately targeted and arrested Black people in particular.
I also remember our dreams that fueled each and every rebellion. Dreams of abolition, a world without cages, carceral systems, or state surveillance, where we repair harm together, in community. Dreams of reproductive justice, where our bodies, choices, families, and communities matter. Dreams of disability justice, of solidarity and interdependence, where each person has what they need, regardless of what they produce under capitalism, and all bodies are honored.
The bill steals and twists the language of reproductive justice and abolition, but the dream is nowhere to be found. As abolitionist organizer Janhavi Madabushi points out, any state efforts to restore incarcerated people’s bodily autonomy must be about “facilitating freedom from their enslavement in prisons…by being imprisoned in a cage and having to survive violence from [corrections officers], medical mismanagement, COVID, inacess to clean drinking water and safe food, sexual assault, isolation, and torture everyday, our incarcerated people do not have bodily autonomy.” From this perspective, the bill’s talk of bodily autonomy feels like a taunt.
Beyond the specific bill, Madabushi, who directs the Massachusetts Bail Fund, notes that incarceration is always dehumanizing, always inequitable, and always unjust. “Our inside community members are treated as properties of the state. As coercive and dehumanizing as this bill is, it is not surprising that state actors view our prison populations as organ farms to be purchased through the currency of freedom.” The perception of incarcerated, BIPOC, queer, trans and/or disabled people’s bodies as resources to be mined and experimented upon is as old as white supremacist capitalism.
Much like Sing-Sing’s doctors’ willingness to sacrifice Louis Boy to save a sick child, the Massachusetts bill is marketed as a means of saving “innocent” lives—by addressing the critical shortage of donor organs. Even more dystopian, the bill’s supporters claim it will promote racial justice, as increasing the number of donated “matched” organs from BIPOC could reduce racialized health inequities in organ transplantation. However, these inequities are about much more than organ availability; reducing them would mean addressing the systemic, structural racism that is baked throughout transplant medicine.
If we want to talk about health equity, we need to talk about disability justice and carceral systems that target disabled people, causing and exacerbating disability. Disability and reproductive justice demand that we think not just of individuals, but of communities and relationships.
As Madabushi and other abolitionists describe, there is no bodily autonomy—no choice—behind bars. There is much less choice when we are forcibly removed from the people and communities that nurture us. For many people who live in the structurally neglected, historically redlined communities from which most incarcerated people are robbed, we also cannot be whole until our loved ones are free.
Nationally, 66% of incarcerated people report having at least one disability. Beginning in early childhood, disabled people are criminalized and surveilled by police. We are also targeted by systems that claim to support us, such as schools, social services and family policing systems (also known as child welfare or child protection systems). Family separation, a foundational tool of white supremacy, causes irreparable harm and can intensify children’s disabilities.
Parents who are disabled, Black, Indigenous and/or structurally impoverished are especially likely to become targets of family policing systems, especially if they hold multiple marginalized identities. Despite low rates of actual child abuse, 53% of all Black children in the U.S. are subjected to an investigation before they turn 18. Disabled children of color are more often funneled into the school-to-prison pipeline and juvenile justice system, where they rarely receive appropriate disability supports.
Surveillance of disabled people continues into adulthood, where we are less likely to have access to the resources we need to survive. Disabled people, especially disabled Black people, are also more likely to be criminalized and punished harshly for actions stemming from disability. This can include self-medication and substance use, denying the state’s “help” and intrusion into one’s life, loitering or sleeping in public, “erratic” behavior, or simply existing in public.
As a result, we as disabled people are more likely to become involved with the criminal legal system—not because we commit more crimes, but because the system itself is structurally ableist and deeply racist. Once in the system, we experience discrimination in every stage of the process, from legal representation and sentencing to incarceration and parole hearings. Incarceration then becomes a revolving door, known as recidivism, as even homelessness or difficulty finding work can be considered parole violations.
The inhumane conditions of U.S. prisons and jails also create new disabilities and exacerbate existing impairments. This includes starvation rations, with food that’s often moldy, rotten, or otherwise inedible; undrinkable, dirty water; lack of access to needed treatment, medication and mobility equipment; and exposure to environmental hazards and injustices. Routine overcrowding allows contagious illnesses to thrive and spread, with devastating consequences.
This was made all too clear by COVID-19’s disproportionate, deadly impacts on incarcerated people, many of whom now live with Long COVID. Personal protective equipment (PPE) and hygiene products like masks, soap, and tampons must be purchased—at marked up and exorbitant costs. Many prisons also require co-pays for medical visits. However, people in prisons earn pennies an hour, if that, often by performing dangerous work in unsafe conditions.
Incarceration is inherently traumatic. Trauma can have severe and lasting impacts on physical and mental health, which is compounded by a disgusting lack of access to basic medical care. The trauma of being forcibly removed from one’s family and community is intensified by the high cost of phone calls and communications with loved ones outside of prison. This monetization removes an important source of support for many incarcerated people, a rupture that also traumatizes their families and communities. Sexual violence, solidarity confinement, restrictive “suicide watches,” isolation, and other harmful practices and status quos all increase trauma, causing further declines in health and wellbeing.
Organ and bone marrow donation is generally considered safe, but can it really be safe under these conditions? And given existing gaps, can we rely on the medical care system within prisons and jails?
Jasmin Borges, a community activist and the Massachusetts Bail Fund’s Bail Organizer thinks not. As she explains, “The medical system within jails and prisons…[is out of date] and ill-managed and anyone who goes under any medical surgery/care is putting their very lives at risk.” The lack of care that Borges describes also maps directly to white supremacy, capitalism, ableism and settler-colonialism.
Even more disturbingly, health care in prison is big business, increasingly provided by for-profit companies. These companies have little to no oversight and exclusive contracts that guarantee lump sum payments for each incarcerated person—whether or not they provide needed care. As a result, many companies have alarming track records of human rights violations, care denials, and cutting corners to maximize profits. The Massachusetts bill has the potential to further consolidate the power these companies hold, as they would be the only source of care for incarcerated organ and tissue donors. They might even act as the medical experts who determine eligibility to donate.
Routine cancer screenings, primary and reproductive health care, and treatment for chronic conditions like diabetes are frequently non-existent in prison. When care is provided, it is substandard—a testament to mass incarceration’s disregard for BIPOC, queer, trans, and disabled people.
As a formerly incarcerated woman herself, Jasmin Borges knows these realities all too well. When I emailed her to ask about prison’s impacts on disabled people, she immediately thought of a dear friend from her incarceration:
“I would like to lift up Lucile Reed, or to those who knew her and did time with her…we called her Mama Lou.” Borges said. She continued, “She was a lifer…She passed away a couple years ago, a week after she had open heart surgery in the Hospital Service Unit. I cannot speak to the specifics of her medical conditions and passing. But I have always wondered if she would have survived…if she was a free woman and my heart and soul say yes.” Ms. Reed’s life and death both matter. We cannot afford to forget her and others like her if we, as a society, purport to value freedom, agency, and all life.
In her honor, and in honor of all our siblings held under mass incarceration, we must end every last legacy of experimenting on incarcerated people and instead demand abolition. And as Talila “TL” Lewis writes, “Disability justice is a requisite for abolition because carceral systems medicalize, pathologize, criminalize, and commodify survival, divergence, and resistance.” It is time for resistance—for abolition—for true reproductive and disability justice.
Janhavi Madabushi agrees, noting that “if legislators care about restoring bodily autonomy to incarcerated populations, they can work tirelessly to help pass the prison construction moratorium, shrink the Department of Corrections and….free every single [one] of our people so they can return home, and champion [the funding of resources that] they needed and didn’t get in the first place.” Equitable distribution of resources, community, and freedom are all crucial parts of bodily autonomy.
Like many of us, Madabushi believes the bill is unlikely to pass, but they are concerned that it will dominate conversations about the inequity and the inhumanity of incarceration. They fear it will distract us from the larger goal of abolishing the cages that hold our people. And abolishing cages is crucial if we are ever to stop devaluing BIPOC, queer, trans, and disabled lives, if we are ever to stop considering BIPOC, queer, trans and disabled bodies as criminal, disposable curiosities.
For me, the bill is a reminder that we cannot let our language, or our struggle, be co-opted. Instead, it reminds us to demand bodily autonomy, the real kind, the kind that is nurtured in communities where all bodies are honored and all people are held. It’s a call to demand the kind of bodily autonomy where we can be truly whole again, free from white supremacy and state violence. We can dream.
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Nechama Sammet Moring (they/she) is a queer, disabled reproductive justice activist, writer, anarchist, educator, parent, and underground abortion provider. They live in Boston with their soulmate pit bull, Samira, who learned how to seizure alert for them after police brutality intensified their disabilities. They are at work on a braided memoir about queer family building, radical activism, eugenics, and the inventor of artificial insemination.