Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney formally apologized for atrocities which were committed at the infamous Holmesburg Prison over 50 years ago.
“Without excuse, we formally and officially extend a sincere apology to those who were subjected to this inhumane and horrific abuse,” he said. “We are also sorry it took far too long to hear these words.”
The abuse goes back to the post-World War II era when medical experimentation on prisoners was common.
From 1951 to 1974, researchers, led by University of Pennsylvania Dermatology Professor Albert Kligman, studied the impact of 250 chemical agents on around 300 predominantly African American prisoners. Most of this story has never truly been told to the public.
Holmesburg was originally built in 1896 in Philadelphia to relieve overcrowding at the Moyamensing Prison. The mammoth structure of Holmesburg was built on a radial design like spokes on a wheel, with 10 cell blocks that could house over 1,500 prisoners.
In subsequent years, the prison was nicknamed “The Terrordome” due to its level of inmate-on-inmate violence, constant prisoner riots and the harsh treatment of prisoners.
The prison was filled to capacity in the summer of 1983, and inmates went on a hunger strike. The strike made the local news, embarrassing prison officials.
After its collapse, the strike leaders were placed in six-feet by nine-feet isolation cells. The skylights and windows were covered up and the heat was turned up. The inmates were literally roasted alive by the furnace and the summer heat. Four men died in what was dubbed the “Klondike Bake-Oven Deaths.”
Kligman was first invited to Holmesburg in 1951 to evaluate and treat an outbreak of athlete’s foot rapidly spreading among inmates. Once at the prison, he saw more than just blisters and rashes. He saw an opportunity.
In an interview years later, he admitted: “All I saw before me were acres of skin. It was like a farmer seeing a field for the first time.”
Almost immediately, Kligman set up experiments using hundreds of prisoners to test anti-rash creams, toothpastes, shampoos, detergents and perfume. Other inmates were infected with ringworm, staphylococcus and herpes so that Kligman could study disease processes and treatments.
The horror went as far as testing radioactive isotopes and dioxin on inmates, with companies like Dow Chemicals and Johnson and Johnson sponsoring Kligman’s research.
Some experiments were not fully known until Allen H. Hornblum published Acres of Skin: Human Experiments at Holmesburg Prison in 1998, based on interviews with former inmates.
Some reported that they were exposed to sulfuric and carbonic acid, while others described their skin being blistered or turned to leather. There is even an account of cadaveric skin being transplanted to the back of inmates and harsh chemicals being applied to prisoners’ genitalia.
Many of Kligman’s subjects were awaiting trial. The experimental program was attractive to the inmates because it paid well and many needed money for bail or fines. Unfortunately, few understood what was going on or the impact of their decision.
Even after Homblum’s book was published, there was little public outcry, only a couple of protests by former inmates and a few minor lawsuits.
In 2000, a group of 298 former inmates filed a lawsuit seeking damages for lifelong scars, deformities and health issues. The case was ultimately dismissed due to the statute of limitations.
Kligman died in 2010, having become extremely wealthy from his research on prisoners but having never been held accountable for his actions. His research at Holmesburg helped him develop Retin-A, an acne cream, and RenovaIn for anti-aging, netting him tens of millions of dollars in profits.
In 2021, the University of Pennsylvania issued an apology for its involvement in the atrocities, and it took Kligman’s name off an annual lecture series and a professorship.
Former prisoners have never truly been compensated for the pain inflicted upon them by drug companies, the university and the U.S. government. Most of the public is not even aware of the everyday products they use that were literally developed off the backs of prisoners.
The middle of the 20th century witnessed countless immoral medical experiments done on vulnerable people. We need to remember the stories of the Tuskegee Syphillis study, as well as the experiments conducted on children at the Willowbrook State School and on prisoners at Holmesburg Prison.
Such experiments should have never been allowed and must never be forgotten.
The greatest horror of all is that people were viewed by these researchers as objects and not as persons endowed with the image of God. Objects can be used and then mindlessly thrown away without another thought. To treat a person this way damages our soul and our concept of what it means to be human.
To reduce the most vulnerable to the level of an object reduces the dignity of all humanity. Treating other individuals like objects ultimately reduces our own dignity and value. By dehumanizing others, we dehumanize ourselves. That is why cases of abuse and neglect affect us at a such a soul level.
We must never again tolerate another Holmesburg.
Senior Staff Chaplain and Clinical Ethicist at the Baptist Health Medical Center in Little Rock, Arkansas.