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Book Review: Acres of Skin: Human Experiments at Holmesburg Prison

Allen M. Hornblum
Routledge, 297 pgs., $25.00

by Daniel Burton-Rose

The ignominious story of U.S. medical experimentation on prisoners is rarely one that makes the history books. Tests using prisoners as human guinea pigs included World War II efforts against cholera, malaria and smallpox. In the Holmesburg county jail in Philadelphia, the centerpiece of Allen Homblum's impressive Acres of Skin, pharmaceutical tests of the needlessly cruel sort people now protest being committed against non-human animals were a mainstay through the 1950s to the early '70s: shampoo drops in the eyes; grids of skin smeared and seared with different chemical combinations; prisoners' arms dipped in solvents for hours: all just to see what would happen.

The macabre title of Allen's book comes from the recollection of Albert M. Kligman, the dermatologist overseeing most of the experiments, of his thoughts upon entering Holmesburg for the first time: "All I saw before me were acres of skin. It was like a farmer seeing a fertile field for the first time." Kligman was an experimenter bursting with ideas who believed medical ethics didn't apply to genius, just as arrogant American medical science in general didn't believe the Nuremburg medical ethics code-requiring, among other things, the informed consent of subjects applied to them. It is not surprising that many in Hornblum's book compared the experiments Kligman oversaw to Nazi medical "science".

In one such experiment conducted in the mid-'60s prisoners were exposed to the vicious carcinogen dioxin on behalf of Dow Chemical and the University of Pennsylvania. When initial experiments showed only "moderate irritation" to portions of the body where dioxin had been applied, Kligman upped the dosage so that he could study more severe acne. The experiments represented the first time the amount of human exposure to dioxin was measured and controlled. Kligman received $10,000 for his services. The lasting medical ramifications of the experiments for the participants have not been terribly well monitored.

Besides being a well-paid researcher for pharmaceutical companies (some of whom are still making money of the results of the prisoner experiments, such as the producers of the anti-wrinkle creme Retin-A) Kligman helped the Army into the prison. Inside, the military set up a string of trailers in the yard, in which they conducted Manchurian Candidate style experiments with chemical biological warfare and psychotropic drugs. Several prisoners came back from Army experiments permanently rearranged mentally.

The prisoners of Holmesburg, many of whom were pre-trial detainees hoping to make bail, participated in the tests because they were their only possible source of income (Hornblum is repeatedly amazed that prisoners are the staunchest defenders of the experiments: the meager sporadic dollars were irreplaceable). "Informed consent" was not a prevalent concept of the time or milieu. Hornblum unfolds details this story by using testimonies from former prisoners and excuses from former doctors and administrators. Its one of the few book of oral history on prisons, and for that reason merits attention even beyond the importance of the subject matter.

Sensible Justice: Alternatives to Prison

David C. Anderson The New Press, 182 pgs., $25.00

The programs David C. Anderson lauds in Sensible Justice are everything that alternatives to prison should not be. They stress the punitive over what could reintegrate an offender into society; the individual's culpability over any consideration of the lives the offenders lead; and money saved instead of lives changed for the better.

In each chapter Anderson draws a one-dimensional sketch of a prisoner who is always at least grudgingly in favor of the "alternative" program to illustrate his point about the program. He then gives a quick, shallow and very selective history of such programs, and tromps out statistics from a couple decades of studies debating the standard pro and con arguments about said program.

Deep questioning of these "alternatives" and the state's power to warp and crush people are totally absent. Military boot camps for young offenders where buzz-cut drill instructors beat "discipline" into inner-city kids by forcing them to jog chanting "I used to carry a .38/ But now I'm owned by New York State" provides "dividends (that) are real and substantial" in Anderson's estimation. However, numerous follow-up studies reveal that boot camps do nothing to lower recidivism. Anderson is also impressed by drug treatment programs that include forced abstinence and kick moms out for going to see their kids without the state's permission. Anderson's propolicing bias is revealed not only by his obviously minimal contact with the subjects of the programs in question, but through his use of the criminal justice system's own euphemisms, such as referring to prisoners as "clients."

The prison developed in this country along with the factory as a way to impose industrial work discipline upon those who didn't see the glory of working 14-16 hours a day for someone else's benefit. These so-called alternative programs are a necessary post-industrial, service-sector tweaking of the prison system. Instead of having those who have been sucked into the criminal justice system loiter in overcrowded prisons as they (so offensively to the class of those who benefit from their labor) loiter on street corners, goes the new logic, beat discipline into them by highly structured work release, intensive probation, and home imprisonment (such as ankle bracelets) "alternatives" where their whole life is forcibly structured around their minimum wage jobs. The state makes them better workers by enforcing totalitarian drug and alcohol prohibition, and will send them to prison if they fail to show up at work.

Needless to say, critic's contentions that these "alternative" programs, instead of diverting anyone from incarceration are nothing more than a means of expanding the state's web of control is not seriously addressed. Everything in Sensible Justice proves the critics' grim thesis.

The reviews from employers are rave. Says Ron Robinson, of North American Film Company [the book doesn't say what state it's in], an employer of people forced to work 50 hours a week while they live on a prison complex until they pay a restitution for their property crime: "They have reason to work... We know they're going to be here, and the ones I've seen have been hard workers... They have restitution to pay." Anderson, for his part, agrees that "the forced labor teaches work skills."

The danger of this book is many well-intentioned people may believe the programs it describes to actually be a change from business as usual. It is a particularly disappointing offering from the Edna McConnel Clark Foundation, which provided the grant money to finance Anderson, and The New Press, a non-profit that aims to be progressive.

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