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Holmesburg Prison was a prison operated by the city of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and the Pennsylvania Department of Prisons (PDP) from 1896 to 1995. The facility was located at 8215 Torresdale Ave in the Holmesburg section of Philadelphia. It was closed and decommissioned in 1995. The structure still stands.
It was the site of 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 as well as a report released in 1968, the results of an extensive two-year investigation by the Offices of the Philadelphia Police Commissioner and the District Attorney of Philadelphia documenting hundreds of cases of the rape of inmates. The 1998 book Acres of Skin: Human Experiments at Holmesburg Prison, by Allen Hornblum, documents clinical non-therapeutic medical experiments on prison inmates at Holmesburg.
Although Holmesburg has a horrific history, it was there that the department began moving towards modern correctional practices that featured reentry and positive developmental and educational programs. The PDP's Training Academy still operates near the jail.
On August 20, 1938, 23 prisoners who were on a hunger strike protesting the quality of prison food were placed into an isolation cell known as the Klondike. Due to the steam heat in the cell (where the temperature reached over 100 degrees), 4 prisoners died, and the ensuing "bake-oven" death investigations led to the indictment of 10 prison officials, including the superintendent and deputy warden. 
The bank robber Willie Sutton, serving a life sentence, escaped from Holmesburg in 1947, with the help of other prisoners (including Frederick Tenuto, who was never recaptured), all dressed as prison guards, by climbing over the walls with ladders. 
The Independence Day Riot
Prisoner-guard tensions were mounting. Contributing to tensions in the prison, was the fact that by 1968, 85 percent of the prisoners were black, as were the lower ranking guards, while supervisors were white, as well as violence between inmates and abuse by guards.
On July 4, 1970 violence broke out that injured over 100 people, Mayor Rizzo blamed it on politicized African Americans. who attacked white inmates and guards. This was countered by reform organizations and groups that pointed to overcrowding, the lack of meaningful activities for prisoners and the abuse by guards. Prisoners were racially segregated and black Muslims were segregated.
There was also a lack of supervision by guards throughout the prison, leaving it to the prisoners to manage prison life.:221–228
On May 31, 1973, Warden Patrick Curran and Deputy Warden Major Robert Fromhold were killed by inmates at Holmesburg, over disputes over a meeting place for Muslims. They are the only known staff members to be killed in the line of duty at the PDP. :303 The Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility (CFCF), which opened in 1995, was named in their honor. Each May 31st, the PDP pays tribute to the Warden and Major and their surviving families, in honor of their sacrifice.
50 prison trustees, watched over by four armed guards, also provided labor to nearby Camp Happy, a summer camp for the underprivileged children of Philadelphia. The children's clothing was canvas and issued by the camp, with the prison providing laundry services for the camp.
Use after closing
Until 2017, Holmesburg was used often used for tactical training exercises, and was featured in several major motion pictures such as Law Abiding Citizen (2009), Fallen (1998), and Up Close and Personal (1996). Holmesburg no longer allows any visitors (citizens, film crews, photographers, historians) to have access to the building or the grounds.
Experiments on Holmesburg Prison Inmate
The Holmesburg Prison was the site of several scientific experiments on the inmates, which raised ethical and moral questions about 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 rewards. The prison was viewed as a human laboratory. It was an "idle collection of humanity that seemed ideal for dermatologic study," Dr. Albert Kligman famously recounted entering the Holmesburg Prison for the first time as, "All I saw before me were acres of skin. It was like a farmer seeing a fertile field for the first time."
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.:79,150 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. Such experiments did not simply affect the well-being of individual inmates, but also affected the health of entire cell blocks due to experimentation with biological agents including Hong Kong flu, poison ivy and poison oak. So common was the experimentation that in the 1,200-person prison facility, around 80 percent to 90 percent of inmates were experimented on.
The rise of testing harmful substances on human subjects first became popularized in the United States when, during World War I, President Woodrow Wilson founded the Chemical Warfare Service (CAWS) . The Armed Forces Medical Policy Council (AFMPC), for moral and ethical reasons, disagreed with the use of testing human patients, arguing that all testing must be done on volunteers who consented to the experiments. In 1959, CAWS was approved to conduct research on chemical warfare agents on human subjects. Despite gaining this approval, the issue that remained was finding consenting participants.
All inmates who were tested on in the trials had consented to the experimentation, however, they mostly agreed due to incentives like monetary compensation. Experiments in the prison often paid around $30 to $50 and even as much as $800. The Holmesburg prison experiments paid an extraordinary amount compared to other prison jobs. In Philadelphia's prisons at the time, inmates were able to end their sentence if they could pay for 10 percent of the set bail amount. In such a system, experiments were an easy means to earn the money for freedom.
Leodus Jones, a former inmate and one of the principals in the planned lawsuits against the Holmesburg prison wrote, "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."
Post World War I, the Geneva Convention of 1925, or the Geneva Gas Protocol, called for a ban of chemical weapons like chlorine and mustard gas. Despite advocating for it at the time, the United States continued to develop chemical agents for warfare. It has been determined that over 254 chemical compounds were tested in the Holmesburg prison facilities. Among these reagents were "acutely toxic anticholinesterase chemicals: incapacitating agents, which included the glycolates, atropine-like anticholinergic compounds of which BZ (3-quinuclidinyl benzilate) is a prototype; the indoles, represented by EA 1729 (LSD-25); the cannabinols, or marijuana-like compounds; and the sedative, or tranquilizer, group." One of the most significant of these chemicals was 3-quinuclidinyl cyclopentylphenylglycolate (EA-3167) which was discovered when a researcher had accidentally injected himself in the thumb. The researcher immediately suffered from brain and nerve damage and the compound became of interest to the military. The military approached the University of Pennsylvania to test this compound at the Holmesburg Prison. EA-3167 was the first compound to set the precedent for the rest of the Holmesburg prison trials. For the first batch of experiments, 19 male patients were chosen between the ages of 22 and 37 based on the results of the Minnesota Multiphase Personality Inventory (MMPI) test. These first experiments were moderate and measured standard vitals such as heart rate and blood pressure. These tests quickly radicalized and scaled up, both in terms of the number of patients and number of chemical compounds. In a study titled "Threshold Doses in Humans and Evaluations of Drugs in Man", over 320 inmates were recruited to test "ditran, atropine, scopolamine, and various experimental glycolate agents," which affected the nervous activity and the function of smooth muscles. In threshold experiments, rather than increasing dosage by small incremental amounts, experiments such as those involving EA-3167 increased in dosage often by 40 percent at a time. In addition to providing subjects for experimentation, the Holmesburg prison also served as the perfect facility for military testing of mind-altering substances because of the presence of pliable furniture and padding as a safety precaution for patients.
Below is a list of some other significant drugs tested in the Holmesburg prison along with noted symptoms.
|Agent 282||Grogginess and lightheadedness|
|Agent 834||Mental impairment and Hallucinations|
|CAR 302, 212||Light headedness|
|CAR 302, 368||Light headedness, slurred speech, and lack of drive|
|Agent 1-11 (Atropine Sulfate)||Dullness of consciousness, difficulty distinguishing reality from fantasy.|
|Agent 668||Mildly high symptoms and intoxication.|
Given the climate of the Cold War, there was an increase in the interest in radioactive material in the United States. One of the main experimenters at the Holmesburg prison was Dr. Albert Kligman who applied for a By-Product Material License to the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) to store radioactive isotopes for testing on Holmesburg prisoners. Before the Cold War the use of radioactive isotopes medically had been mostly restricted to X-ray machines which were used for diagnoses and treatment against ringworms. One of Kligman's first radioactive experimenting protocols was testing the turnover rate of the human skin in a study entitled "Studies of Human Epidermal Turnover Time Using S35 Cysteine and H3 Thymidine and of Cutaneous Permeability Using C14 Testosterone and Corticosteroid."  In these studies, human skin was radioactively labelled and anywhere from 50 to 200 subjects from Holmesburg were tested on. Kligman stated that the radioactive thymidine posed no threat to the patients because it was "excised within minutes" and that radioactive materials were never consciously left within an inmate's body. The use of radioactive thymidine was eventually disapproved in 1965. These studies were overseen by the dermatology department at the University of Pennsylvania.
The testing at the Holmesburg prison was first brought to light after the release of an exposé in The Philadelphia Inquirer on January 11, 1981, "Human Guinea Pigs: Dioxin Tested at Holmesburg". In the emerging agricultural climate of the United States, pesticides were very commonplace to destroy weeds and unwanted vegetation. The Dow Chemical Company had produced compounds called 2,3,7,8-Tetrachlorodibenzodioxin (TCDD) and 2, 4, 5-T. These were often sprayed in fields as pesticides even with the allegations that the compound was far too dangerous to be released in the environment. One professor at Harvard University went as far as to say that TCDD was the most toxic and most carcinogenic compound known to man. Given scientific testing linking TCDD to fetal cancers upon exposure, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) banned Dow Chemical from producing the chemical. Dow Chemical vehemently opposed this ban and partnered with the University of Pennsylvania and the Holmesburg prisons to prove the safety of their chemical. In the Holmesburg prison, pesticides were injected into patients to establish safety threshold dosages. In many cases, excessive doses would produce chloracne, inflammatory pustules, and papules which lasted four to seven months at a time. Throughout the experiments, over ten patients had been given over 7,500 micrograms of the dioxin pesticide, which was an excessive amount, surprising even Dow Chemical's scientists. Throughout the experiments, the dosage administered had increased to 468 times the initial recommended doses.
While Dow Chemical maintained that TCDD and 2, 3, 5-T caused no harm to humans, the EPA argued that these herbicides posted a threat to mankind. During experimentations, 2, 3, 5-T contributed to $14 million of Dow Chemical's profits and in 1979, this number would increase to $9 billion. This is one of the first examples of company-sponsored human testing using prison populations. This approach was heavily criticized as being "inhumane" and the media often likened the experiments to Nazi genocide and the various medical experiments performed on concentration camp populations. These trials further placed the Holmesburg prison under racial allegations for primarily testing on black and non-white inmates.:176 The EPA and the Office of Pesticide Programs (OPP) initially looked into investigating these trials, however, the investigation was soon dropped due to the cost and resources associated. Many of the inmates who reached out to the EPA for legal advice were turned away under the claim that once they had signed their consent waivers they were unable to charge the Holmesburg prison. The New York Times quickly jumped onto this story and ran an article stating: "Somewhere almost certainly in the United States, are as many as 70 men who could help researchers determine the risks of human exposure to the poison called dioxin." What was perhaps most shocking in the article was the seemingly callous attitude and lack of guilt on the part of the researchers. In the article, Kligman went so far as to say: "All those people could have leukemia now — about one chance in 20 billion. And I could be hit by an asteroid when I walk out on the street, but I don't think I will." Several patients disagreed with their treatment as "human guinea pigs" and took their grievances to court, given the lack of government support. Several lawsuits were filed in the early 1980s against Klingman, the Holmesburg Prison, and Dow Chemical. Most of these lawsuits such as those filed by Jones and Smith against the doctor, the university, the city, and Dow Chemical Company." were settled out-of-court . 
End of Prison Trials
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. Furthermore, it was believed that the Holmesburg prison contributed to society such as in the development of Retin A as an acne medication. The case was made that the prisoners often wanted to participate in these tests due to the monetary reward. Inmates could earn $15 a week or even $250,000 a year depending on the sponsor and experiment, simply by wearing patches which allowed inmates an increased quality of life within the prison wards within the prison economy. Although there were proponents of the system, the testing on prisoners was eventually halted under public and legal pressure. To defend experimentation practices, Holmesburg prison began to insist upon the use of formal contracts to absolve the prison of any responsibility, however, many claimed these contracts were void due to the lack of informed consent. News stories would reflect Holmesburg in a negative light. 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 in Pennsylvania realized human experimentation was no longer acceptable to the American public. Swiftly, human testing on prisoners was phased out in the United States.
Holmesburg Trials and the Nuremberg Code
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 Holmesburg trials violated this definition of informed consent since 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 Holmesburg prison signified the compliance of the Nuremberg Code of 1947.
Allen M. Hornblum described, "what happened at Holmesburg was just as gruesome as Tuskegee, but at Holmesburg it happened to smack dab in the middle of a major city, not in some backwoods in Alabama. It just goes to show how prisons are truly distinct institutions where the walls don't just serve to keep inmates in, they also serve to keep public eyes out." The Holmesburg prison trials were a prime example of profits and the promise of scientific advancements overshadowing the ethical issues associated with research.
Experiments on inmates
Experimental research at Holmesburg Prison was run by Dr. Albert Kligman. After finishing medical school, he was interested in human fungal infections and published multiple papers on the topic.  His research at Holmesburg Prison began after the prison took an interest in his work. In the 1950s, an outbreak of athlete's foot plagued the inmates, and in trying to find a treatment for the widespread problem, the prison pharmacist discovered one of Kligman's articles. The pharmacist contacted Kligman, asking him to visit the prison, a request to which he agreed. At the time, Kligman was a University of Pennsylvania Medical School professor of dermatology and was designing an experiment researching fingernail fungal infections. In addition to using hospital patients as test subjects for the experiment, he planned on experimenting on prison inmates who "for a modest fee provide us with ideal opportunities".
In an interview, Kligman recounted being amazed by the prison's potential for research. He is quoted as saying: "All I saw before me were acres of skin. It was like a farmer seeing a fertile field for the first time". The controlled conditions of the prison appealed to him, as having the inmates' diet and lifestyle standardized would minimize disruptions to his medical research. After this first visit, Kligman determined he would begin conducting his experiments at Holmesburg. "I began to go to the prison regularly, although I had no authorization. It was years before the authorities knew that I was conducting various studies on prisoner volunteers. Things were simpler then. Informed consent was unheard of. No one asked me what I was doing. It was a wonderful time." He then obtained permission to conduct the dermatological experiments from the superintendent of the prison, who agreed with Kligman that the experiments could benefit the medical realm and the prison. However, there were no formal contracts between the prison/city and the University of Pennsylvania.
Types of Experiments
A range of experiments was conducted on the inmates at Holmesburg. While the experiments started with a focus on dermatological research – Kligman's speciality – experiments were also carried out to test commercial pharmaceutical products and biochemical substances. Dermatological experiments included:
- A study examining the ways a person's feet could be infected with ringworm. "Enormous quantities of fungi were administered to inmates, after which they wore boots for a week." (1957)
- A study where prisoners were infected with skin viruses, such as herpes simplex and wart virus. (1958)
- Studies exposing prisoners to long ultraviolet rays and different versions of yeasts such as candida albicans. ( and species of microbes (1965-1971).
Biochemical experiments included a study testing the poisonous substance in Agent Orange, dioxin. The Dow Chemical Company called for these experiments and compensated Kligman with $10,000. The dosages of dioxin which inmates were exposed to were 468 times greater than those detailed in the company protocol. (1965-1966)
The United States Army contracted Kligman to test the effects of certain mind-altering drugs, with these experiments conducted in trailers on the prison grounds. Subjects from this set of experiments say they weren't aware what drugs they were given due to the lack of consent forms. The drugs produced a variety of lasting effects, such as temporary paralysis, and sudden long-term violent behavior, with half of the subjects reporting to have experienced hallucinations for days. Many prisoners stayed away from the Army experiments due to rumors that they involved LSD and resulted in participants going crazy.
Inmates who participated in the experiments received monetary compensation which varied depending on the type of study they were involved in. The pay was an attractive point to many of the inmates. One inmate named Al Zabala recalled: "I soon heard about the U of P [University of Pennsylvania] studies and the good pay they offered. They had all kinds of tests -- foot powder tests, eye drop tests, face creams, underarm deodorant, toothpaste, liquid diets, and more. It was easy money. You could make $10 to $300 a test depending on how long it lasted." In addition to acting as the subjects of experiments, inmates worked a range of roles within the experiments, for example as laboratory technicians. Zabala was one such assistant technician; he was paid $40–50 per month and was able to choose which tests he wanted to take part in.
Throughout the experiments, prisoners reported experiencing excruciating pain and scary symptoms. One prisoner named Edward Anthony recalls signing up for a Johnson & Johnson study that was testing if a bubble bath product was harmful to someone with open wounds. He reports having developed blisters, then "fine little red bumps all over my face, arms, legs, head" with some of them "white and filled with pus". Even after quitting the test early, his back continued to feel like it "was on fire". In addition to the immediate effects of the drugs, the surviving prisoners experience a range of long-term health effects, including skin problems, cancers, and undetermined illnesses.
Food and Drug Administration Investigations
Kligman became a target for investigation by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 1965 as his research program was so large: he was studying a high "number of new drugs" and was contracted by 33 different companies. In July 1966, the FDA banned Kligman from conducting drug testing at Holmesburg Prison, due to discrepancies in record keeping, and not following the conditions set out by the FDA for the testing of investigative drugs. However, Kligman's ability to conduct experiments was reinstated less than a month after the initial ban. Experimentation at Holmesburg Prison was forcibly ended by the prison's board of trustees after the Senate Labor and Public Welfare Committee's health subcommittee hearing on human experimentation in 1974.
Repercussions of the Experiments
The Holmesburg Prison experiments conducted by Kligman led to many questions about the ethics behind using prison inmates for medical research. There were issues of informed consent since the prisoners weren't made aware of exactly what substances were being tested on them at the time.
As the public became more aware of the testing that occurred within Holmesburg Prison, ex-prisoners started realizing they had a right to sue those in charge of the experiments. In the 1980s, former prisoners who had participated in the dioxin experiments filed lawsuits against Dow Chemical. Other groups such as Johnson & Johnson, Kligman and his company, and the University of Pennsylvania faced a class-action lawsuit filed by 298 ex-prisoners in the year 2000.
Experiments have been run on prison inmates throughout the second half of the 20th century, similar to those run by Kligman at Holmesburg Prison. As a result of the questioning of these Kligman experiments, testing on prisoners was limited by the United States Department of Health, Education, and Welfare in 1976. Their report restricted experimentation on inmates to "non-intrusive, low-risk, individually beneficial research".
In popular culture
The prison was the location for many of the scenes in the 1995 film Condition Red, the 1996 film Up Close & Personal, the 2000 film Animal Factory, the 2009 film Law Abiding Citizen, and the 2017 film ‘’Against the Night’’.
The prison was also part of an art project by Spanish artists María Jesús González and Patricia Gómez who created large-scale prints, photographs and related videos during their artist residency at the prison. The artists' prints are a physical archive of the prison cells—including paint, drawings and markings left by the inmates who lived there.
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