A.J. Burgess was born without kidneys. He spent the first 10 months of his life in a hospital in Atlanta. At 2 years old, he weighs only 25 pounds and has yet to take his first steps. He receives dialysis treatment daily and his health could take a fatal turn at any moment.
One can only imagine the suffering his parents must be going through. Luckily, A.J. is finally old enough that a kidney transplant is now an option. With a transplant he could have a normal childhood and live a long, healthy life. A.J. is even luckier because his father, Anthony Dickerson, is a perfect match.
Dickerson is willing and able to save his son’s life — but he is not permitted to do so. Recently, a court determined that he had violated his probation for an earlier crime when he was found in possession of a firearm during an attempt to commit a felony. As a result, according to A.J.’s mother, the transplant center said in October that Dickerson was not eligible to donate a kidney. The center won’t share information about specific cases. But, again according to A.J.’s mother, it won’t reevaluate its decision for at least three months because it wants to know that Dickerson has exhibited “good behavior” for a significant period of time.
Whatever that actually means and whatever you think about Dickerson, I’m sure we can all agree that a child should not have to pay the price for his father’s actions.
Yet children often suffer when a loved one enters the criminal justice system. People in the system are still mothers, fathers, sisters and brothers. Inevitably, prison doesn’t just touch one individual. It debilitates whole families.
The stigma of incarceration runs deep. Although no court legally barred Dickerson from saving his son’s life, even medical professionals treat him as inherently suspect and “less than.” By other-ing people who have been incarcerated, we prevent them from fully reintegrating into their communities: They never really get out of our criminal justice system once they’ve been in it. Every sentence is a life sentence, of sorts, and Dickerson’s sentence may also be a death sentence for his son.
A.J.’s case is not some unpredictable aberration. It’s an easily foreseeable consequence of our society’s flawed approach to, and understanding of, criminal justice.
Dickerson, like a disproportionate number of people who have been incarcerated, is black. A disproportionate number of patients with kidney failure are also black. African Americans are not only more likely than whites to get kidney disease, but also less likely to be put on the waiting list when eligible, less likely to find a living donor, more likely to wait longer for a deceased donor, and more likely to die while waiting.
The transplant system, like the criminal justice system, shows clear evidence of racial bias and inequality. At every stage of the process, black people fare worse. Given that nearly half of African American men have an arrest record, one has to wonder whether the transplant system’s treatment of formerly incarcerated people is at least partially to blame.
In the realm of criminal justice, reform is a moral imperative. It can also save taxpayers money. So, too, each kidney transplant saves the federal government an average of $145,000 in long-term medical costs. But for a pediatric patient with extreme needs like A.J., that number is far higher. We are all made worse off because Dickerson does not have the right to help his child.
The damage to A.J., meanwhile, is incalculable. Do we want to live in a society that attempts to isolate people like Dickerson from his son? And even if that were morally acceptable — which it is not — what is the value gained by having a system that actually imperils Dickerson’s son?
Glenn E. Martin is the founder and president of JustLeadershipUSA, an advocacy organization that seeks to cut the U.S. correctional population in half by 2030. Joshua Morrison is the executive director of Waitlist Zero, a group that seeks to eliminate the shortage of kidney transplants.