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Experimentation on prisoners

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Throughout history, prisoners have been frequent participants in scientific, medical and social human subject research. Some of the research involving prisoners has been exploitative and cruel. Many of the modern protections for human subjects evolved in response to the abuses in prisoner research.[citation needed] Research involving prisoners is still conducted today[citation needed], but prisoners are now one of the most highly protected groups of human subjects[where?][1]

Requirements of research involving prisoners


According to the Common Rule (45 CFR 46),[clarification needed] prisoners may only be included in human subjects research when the research involves no more than a minimal risk of harm.


Prisoners cannot consent.[2] Their status as imprisoned human subjects becomes even more ethically problematic when investigators offer incentives such as parole, phone calls, or objects that are normally unavailable to prisoners.

Historical abuses


Ancient history


Herophilos of Chalcedon was reputed by Celcus, among others, to have vivisected prisoners received from the Ptolemaic kings.[citation needed]

Second Sino-Japanese War and World War II


In Japan, Unit 731, located near Harbin (Manchukuo), experimented with prisoner vivisection, dismemberment and induced epidemics on a very large scale from 1935 to 1945 during the Second Sino-Japanese War. With the expansion of the Empire of Japan during World War II, many other units were implemented in conquered cities such as Nanking (Unit 1644), Beijing (Unit 1855), Guangzhou (Unit 8604) and Singapore (Unit 9420). After the war, Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers Douglas MacArthur gave immunity in the name of the United States to all members of the units in exchange for the results of a fraction of the conducted experiments, so that in post-war Japan, Shiro Ishii and others continued to hold honoured positions. The United States blocked Soviet access to this information. However, some unit members were judged by the Soviets during the Khabarovsk War Crime Trials. The effects were lasting and China is still working to counteract the effects of buried pathogen caches.[citation needed]

United States


Project MKUltra was a CIA-run human experiment program from 1953–1973 where volunteers, prisoners and unwitting subjects were administered hallucinogenic drugs in attempt to develop incapacitating substances and chemical mind control agents, in an operation run by Sidney Gottlieb.[3]

Numerous experiments were done on prisoners throughout the US. Many prisoners eventually filed lawsuits and these actions brought about many more investigations and suits against doctors, hospitals and pharmaceutical companies.[4] Experiments included high-risk cancer treatments, the application of strong skin creams, new cosmetics, dioxin and high doses of LSD. Many incidents were documented in government reports, ACLU findings and various books including Acres of Skin by Allen Hornblum. The Stateville Penitentiary Malaria Study is one of many examples. The Plutonium Files, for which Eileen Welsome won a Pulitzer Prize, documents the early human tests of the toxicity of plutonium and uranium on people.[5]

American oncologist Chester M. Southam injected HeLa cells into Ohio State Penitentiary inmates without informed consent in order to see if people could become immune to cancer.[6]

Germany and German-occupied territory


The Herero and Namaqua Genocide in present-day Namibia, in Southern Africa, resulted in a large number of prisoners in concentration camps. These prisoners were used as medical test subjects by German agents.[7][8]

During the second World War, Nazi human experimentation occurred in Germany with particular bias towards euthanasia. At the war's conclusion, 23 Nazi doctors and scientists were tried for the murder of concentration camp inmates who were used as research subjects. Of the 23 professionals tried at Nuremberg, 15 were convicted. Seven of them were condemned to death by hanging and eight received prison sentences from 10 years to life. Eight professionals were acquitted. (Mitscherlich 1992[clarification needed])

The result of these proceedings was the Nuremberg Code. It includes the following guidelines, among others, for researchers:

Informed consent is essential.
Research should be based on prior animal work.
The risks should be justified by the anticipated benefits.
Research must be conducted by qualified scientists.
Physical and mental suffering must be avoided.
Research in which death or disabling injury is expected should not be conducted.

See also



  1. ^ "OHRP Guidance on the Involvement of Prisoners in Research", https://www.hhs.gov/ohrp/humansubjects/guidance/prisoner.htm Archived 2010-11-15 at the Wayback Machine
  2. ^ "Challenges of Conducting Research in Prisons". National Institute of Justice. Retrieved 2023-01-11.
  3. ^ Streatfeild, Dominic (2006). Brainwash: The Secret History Of Mind Control. London: Hodder & Stoughton Ltd. ISBN 978-0-340-83161-8.
  4. ^ Talvi, Silja J. A. (7 December 2001). "The Prison As Laboratory" – via In These Times.
  5. ^ Michael Sherry. Human Guinea Pigs. New York Times.
  6. ^ Skloot, Rebecca (2010). The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. New York: Broadway Paperbacks. p. 129.
  7. ^ Hitler's Black Victims: The Historical Experiences of European Blacks, Africans and African Americans During the Nazi Era (Crosscurrents in African American History) by Clarence Lusane, page 50-51 Routledge 2002
  8. ^ Germans return skulls to Namibia 27 Sept 2011, Times Live (South Africa)