The History of Medical Testing on Prisoners in America

While atrocities such as the experiments conducted during World War II on prisoners may be well known, the United States unfortunately also has a history of medical experimentation on prison populations.

In the late 1940s, a U.S. doctor, who was also involved in the well-known, unethical Tuskegee syphilis study, led a study where they infected Guatemalan prisoners with syphilis. Although the subjects were offered penicillin to cure the disease, it is unknown how many received enough treatment to actually be cured. An apology wasn’t issued by the U.S. government until 2010.

In the mid-1960s, Philadelphia’s Holmesburg Prison was used a site for the testing of the side effects of Agent Orange, the well-known defoliant used in the Vietnam War, on humans. The testing exposed prisoners to extremely high doses of the chemical; more than 400 times the dosages Dow Chemical used in their own testing.

Up until the 1970s, most testing of various drugs and chemicals on humans in this county was done on prisoners. They were given little forewarning and had little understanding of what they may be subjected to. Changes in the criminal justice system and views on prisoners rights changed the landscape, but not in total.

Although the use of prisoners as experimental subjects has abated, it is not completely gone. In 2008, several state prisons were contracted with pharmaceutical company Hythian to provide prisoners as subjects for studies on drug effects. Even with stricter humane regulation, prisoners are still used legally in medical studies throughout the U.S.

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