Built in 1896 and in continuous use until 1995, this pinwheel style quaker prison was a reflection of a similar one located nearby. You can tour that one for a few dollars and take as many pictures as you like. This one was not so easy....
It was the site of a controversial decades-long dermatological, pharmaceutical, and biochemical weapons research projects involving testing on inmates.
The prison is also notable for several major riots in the early 1970s.
The prison was home to several trials which raised several ethical and moral questions pertaining to the extent to which humans can be experimented on. In many cases, inmates chose to undergo several inhumane trials for the sake of small monetary reward. The prison was viewed as a human laboratory.
“All I saw before me were acres of skin. It was like a farmer seeing a fertile field for the first time.” Dr. X
One inmate described experiments involving exposure to microwave radiation, sulfuric and carbonic acid, solutions which corroded and reduced forearm epidermis to a leather-like substance, and acids which blistered skin in the testicular areas.
In addition to exposure to harmful chemical agents, patients were asked to physically exert themselves and were immediately put under the knife to remove sweat glands for examination. In more gruesome accounts, fragments of cadavers were stitched into the backs of inmates to determine if the fragments could grow back into functional organs.
So common was the experimentation that in the 1,200-person prison facility, around 80% to 90% of inmates could be seen experimented on.
The rise of testing harmful substances on human subjects first became popularized in the United States when President Woodrow Wilson allowed the Chemical Warfare Service (CAWS) during World War I.
All inmates who were tested upon in the trials had consented to the experimentation, however, they mostly agreed for incentives like monetary compensation. Experiments in the prison often paid around $30 to $50 and even as much as $800. “I was in prison with a low bail. I couldn’t afford the monies to pay for bail. I knew that I wasn’t guilty of what I was being held for. I was being coerced to plea bargain. So, I thought, if I can get out of this, get me enough money to get a lawyer, I can beat this. That was my first thought.”
I expected to find an epic medical ward only to be filled with disappointment. The practice was so common I can only assume it was conducted everywhere.
Many advocates of the prison trials, such as Solomon McBride, who was an administrator of the prisons, remained convinced that there was nothing wrong with the experimentation at the Holmesburg prison. McBride argued that the experiments were nothing more than strapping patches of cloth with lotion or cosmetics onto the backs of patients and argued this was a means for prisoners to earn an easy income.
The negative public opinion was particularly heightened by the 1973 Congressional Hearing on Human Experimentation. The hearing was supposed to discuss the Tuskegee Syphilis Study and clarify the ethical and legal implications of human experimental research. This climate called for a conscious public which rallied against the use of vulnerable populations such as prisoners as guinea pigs. Companies and organizations who associated themselves with human testing faced severe backlash. Amidst the numerous senate hearings, public relation nightmares, and opponents to penal experimentation, county prison boards realized human experimentation was no longer acceptable to the American public. Swiftly, human testing on prisoners was phased out of the United States.
Only a renovated gymnasium is considered suitable for holding inmates. That building is frequently used for overflow from other city jails.
The district attorney launched an extensive two year investigation documenting hundreds of cases of the rape of inmates.
The United States had ironically been strong enforcers of the Nuremberg Code and yet had not followed the convention until the 1990s. The Nuremberg code states: “[T]he person involved should have legal capacity to give consent; should be so situated as to be able to exercise free power of choice, without the intervention of any element of force, fraud, deceit, duress, overreaching, or other ulterior form of constraint or coercion; and should have sufficient knowledge and comprehension of the elements of the subject matter involved as to enable him to make an understanding and enlightened decision.”
The prison trials violated this definition of informed consent because inmates did not know the nature of materials they were experimented with and only consented due to the monetary reward. America’s shutting down of prison experimentation such as those in the prison signified the compliance of the Nuremberg Code of 1947.
You look so precious.
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