Holmesburg Prison apology: Philadelphia apologizes for experiments on Black inmates

PHILADELPHIA (WPVI) — The city of Philadelphia on Thursday apologized for the unethical medical experiments it conducted on mostly black inmates at its Holmesburg prison in the 1950s-1970s.

The move comes after community activists and families of some of those inmates expressed the need for a formal apology. It also follows a series of apologies from various US cities for historically racist policies or misconduct in the wake of statewide racial reckoning following the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer.

The city allowed University of Pennsylvania researcher Dr. Albert Kligman to conduct the dermatological, biochemical, and pharmaceutical experiments that intentionally exposed about 300 inmates to viruses, fungi, asbestos, and chemical agents including dioxin, a component of Agent Orange.

The vast majority of Kligman’s experiments were conducted on black men, many of whom were awaiting trial trying to save money for bail, and many of whom were illiterate, the city said.

Kligman, who would go on to pioneer the acne and wrinkle treatment Retin-A, died in 2010. Many of the former inmates had lifelong scars and health problems from the experiments. A group of the inmates filed a lawsuit against the university and Kligman in 2000, which was eventually dismissed due to the statute of limitations.

After completing his master’s degree at Villanova University, Allen Hornblum began teaching a prison literacy program in the 1970s.

He was forced to write a book and produce a documentary, both entitled Acres of Skin, detailing the atrocities at Holmesburg.

“It was a supermarket of possibilities. Holmesburg Prison was like the Macy’s of experimentation. Anything that anyone wanted tested on people, even toxic, carcinogenic and dangerous things could be done there,” Hornblum said.

In some cases, inmates had no idea what was being done to them.

“Five to six dozen inmates were treated with dioxin on their backs and faces without being told what it was or how it could harm them,” Hornblum said.

He even has a prison log detailing which inmates were used for military testing.

“Some of these potions were so strong that the inmates were completely disoriented. They forgot their names, didn’t know where they were,” Hornblum said.

Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney said in the apology that the experiments exploited a vulnerable population and the effects of this medical racism stretched across generations.

“Without apologies, we formally and officially offer our sincere apologies to those who have been subjected to this inhumane and horrific abuse. We’re also sorry it took way too long to hear those words,” Kenney wrote.

Last year, the University of Pennsylvania formally apologized and stripped Kligman’s name of some honors, including an annual lecture series and a professorship. The university also directed research grants to grantees focused on dermatological issues in people of color.

Hornblum says he will hold a vigil for the victims and their families at 12 noon Saturday outside the jail.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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https://6abc.com/holmesburg-prison-experiments-philadelphia-apology-dr-albert-kligman-university-of-pennsylvania/12300722/ Holmesburg Prison apology: Philadelphia apologizes for experiments on Black inmates

Alley Einstein

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