Philadelphia Apologizes for Experimenting on Black Inmates at Holmesburg Prison

Philadelphia Apologizes for Experimenting on Black Inmates at Holmesburg Prison

The city of Philadelphia is apologizing for its unethical past that includes experiments performed on the mostly Black inmates at Holmesburg Prison.

On Thursday, the city issued a formal apology for the immoral experimenting it performed on Holmesburg Prison’s primarily Black inmates from 1951 to 1974, NPR reports. The apology is a result of community activists and family members of the inmates banding together to demand a formal apology from the city.

The unethical experiments were the byproduct of University of Pennsylvania researcher Dr. Albert Kligman who used primarily Black male inmates, many of whom were illiterate, awaiting trial, and trying to save money for bail, to conduct testing that intentionally exposed about 300 inmates to viruses, fungus, asbestos and chemical agents like Agent Orange.

Staff at the Mütter Museum say Kligman visited the prison in 1951 to treat an outbreak of athlete’s foot among the inmates and saw an opportunity to advance his research, Philly Voice reports. Kligman reportedly saw the predominantly Black prison population as a low-risk and bountiful group of test subjects on which he could research 250 different chemical compounds.

“All I saw before me were acres of skin,” Kligman said in an interview in 1966. “It was like a farmer seeing a field for the first time.”

A group of 300 inmates filed a class-action lawsuit against the university and Kligman in 2000, but it was tossed out due to the statute of limitations. Kligman, who would pioneer the acne and wrinkle treatment Retin-A, passed away in 2010.

The former Holmesburg Prison in Northeast Philadelphia has been inactive since 1995, but the findings highlight the prison’s dark past of exploiting inmates. Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney released a formal apology on behalf of the city.

“While this happened many decades ago, we know that the historical impact and trauma of this practice of medical racism has extended for generations—all the way through to the present day,” Kenney said.

“One of our Administration’s priorities is to rectify historic wrongs while we work to build a more equitable future, and to do that, we must reckon with past atrocities. That is why our Administration today, on behalf of the City of Philadelphia, is addressing this shameful time in Holmesburg’s history.”