Mohsen Abdelmoumen: Your book “Acres of Skin: Human Experiments at Holmesburg Prison” describes the medical experiments conducted on prisoners in Holmesburg Prison under the direction of the dermatologist Albert Kligman. You have also written “Sentenced to science: One Black Man’s Story of Imprisonment in America”. “Against their will: The Secret History of Medical Experimentation on Children in Cold War America” describes other experiments on children and infants. How could these criminal experiences have taken place in the USA? Were the criminals punished?
Allen M. Hornblum: As I told my college students over many years, America has not always been a beacon on a hill or shining example of a good and just society. Along with many very admirable qualities and attributes, the United States also has some extremely sad and unsavory episodes in its history. Our brutal treatment of Native Americans and long embrace of slavery and racist policies are two of America’s more egregious and inexcusable instances of dark behavior. The legacy of both continues to haunt American politics and society.
Not surprisingly, other aspects of American history display similar signs of cavalier treatment to those who are less well off, less influential, and less sophisticated. Regrettably, in the medical and scientific arena some of our best trained and educated doctors and researchers have found it convenient to utilize the least powerful members of society as raw material for experimentation. As I witnessed first-hand when working in an urban prison system in the early 1970’s, and then later catalogued in my books, scores of eminent doctors from elite institutions found it easy to orchestrate dangerous scientific research on prisoners, the elderly, the mentally ill, and institutionalized children. The best of us so freely incorporating the least of us in potentially dangerous research is not something we should proud, but all too often that is exactly what happened. Though researchers may have made vast strides in combating illnesses and discovered cures for diseases like polio, syphilis, and hepatitis, the use of weak, defenseless people as test material should give pause to all who champion a free, advanced, and progressive society.
In fact, noted physicians like Drs. Koprowski, Southam, Kligman, and Salk were not only not punished – or even given minor sanctions for their use of vulnerable populations – but celebrated for their scientific achievements. Many Americans, it is true, were not aware that defenseless children, prisoners, and asylum residents were integral to these studies, but others were and found nothing wrong with it. They had in part bought into a eugenics mindset that found it acceptable to use those considered “inferior,” “damaged,” “feebleminded,” or “criminal” for use as lab rats in behalf of scientific advancement.
Dr. Jonas Salk, for example, the noted virologist who was one of the first to conquer polio, performed experiments on children at the Polk State School for the Feebleminded and the D. T. Watson School for handicapped children before giving the vaccine to so-called “normal” children. Few know of the sacrifice of these institutionalized children, but all laud Salk and the other doctors like him for their discoveries.
You were a criminal justice official and you ran a literacy program in Holmesburg Prison. According to you, do not the American prisons dehumanize the human being?
By definition, prisons are designed to punish. Very little enlightening or spiritually uplifting takes place there. When early Americans in Philadelphia in the 1820’s constructed Eastern State Penitentiary to end corporal punishment and create a new and more humane method of punishment, the social experiment was much praised and speculated upon around the world. Though many states and countries took notice and then adopted similar institutions, little has changed since the 19th century. Lawbreakers are isolated and kept away from polite society. It is hoped that prisoners recognize the error of their ways and decide to go straight upon release. For some, it works; for many others, it doesn’t. Dehumanization is certainly a by-product of the punitive and unforgiving system that warehouses human beings around the world.
The field of corrections – a euphemism of the highest order – does not attract the most creative minds. Societies across the globe seem to have conceded that there is little that can be done about crime except throw more people behind bars. Policies and programs have varied little over the decades with the general public and policymakers generally unmoved by the situation. A jump in a community’s crime rate usually results in more police, longer sentences, and harsher prison conditions. Few elected officials either know or have the conviction to champion alternatives. That scenario seems unlikely to change in the near or long term.
Your highly documented book “Acres of Skin” was published in 1998 and even has been featured in the mainstream media like CBS, CNN, BBC, and did a front page of the NY Times. Can we say that Allen Hornblum was a whistleblower even before this concept exists?
I do not know when the expression “whistleblower” originated, but not sure I qualify since I can not claim credit for ending the Holmesburg Prison medical experiments. Though I did witness them, ask questions, and years later try to construct their genesis and evolution, I did not play a role in their termination in the mid-1970’s.
However, I have often received praise for recognizing the ethical transgressions, chronicling the story, and making sure the American public knows what happened in Philadelphia and around the nation regarding prison testing. Though I appreciate the praise I periodically receive, there is a more significant issue the public overlooks: Why did so many prison employees who saw what was happening remain silent? That question is of paramount importance as the Holmesburg medical experiments were not unique. Such episodes of research excess repeatedly occurred over the years across America with few individuals willing to speak out. Most went along with the program without raising a concern. This phenomenon of seeing something ethically troubling and remaining silent is probably most problematic regarding the Tuskegee Syphilis Study that operated for forty years before someone raised questions about it. Much should be learned from such individual and public indifference.
In reading your books, I could not help but think of Dostoevsky who described the prison world and that of crime in its complexity, especially in “Crime and Punishment”. Do you think that prison is the only way against crime?
Imprisonment should be part of a mix of penalties for those who transgress society’s laws. Not every crime warrants imprisonment, but all too often criminal justice systems around the globe see only one alternative and sentence people to prison. The one-size-fits-all approach is intellectually lazy, expensive, dehumanizing, and counter-productive. Progressive societies willing to explore more cost efficient and productive methods will usually have lower crime rates and fewer budgetary difficulties. Regrettably, few public officials in America have the courage or know-how to champion such a difficult policy option.
In your opinion, is the death penalty justifiable?
I am opposed to the death penalty. My view is quite simple: if it is wrong to take a life, then it is wrong for a government to take a life. Over many years working in the criminal justice system I have known many criminals who have committed extremely brutal and violent offenses. Granted, in moments of moral outrage, one would like to strike out at such vicious felons, but a just and fair society that values life should not execute people who commit horrible crimes.
The cases of Mumia Abu-Jamal and Leonard Peltier imprisoned for more than 30 years are they not contrary to human rights?
I personally know Mumia Abu Jamal. As the director of a political organization in the early 1980’s, I was interviewed by Mumia who was a part-time radio reporter and known by his original name Wesley Cook. Several years later and after some sort of self-radicalization program, Mumia lashed out and killed a Philadelphia police officer who had pulled his brother over for a traffic violation.
I followed the case and trial fairly closely and have little doubt Mumia killed the officer in cold blood. Though his defenders are loyal, loud, and persistent, Mumia is lucky he escaped the death penalty. For progressive activists and prison reformers, there are far more worthy individuals behind bars deserving of support than Mumia Abu Jamal.
In your opinion, is there a class justice in the United States?
An argument can certainly be made that the more money one has the better grade of justice he or she will receive. During my years working in a large urban prison system, the population was overwhelmingly poor, black, and unschooled. Most offenders were African-American, high school drop-outs, and swimming in poverty. Over the years, I came in contact with very few wealthy, educated prisoners. Those who were arrested for crimes and had the economic resources to acquire competent lawyers and pay bail were quickly released pending trial. Those found guilty, but with money, tended to receive shorter sentences. The more money, the more justice. I think it’s a universal phenomenon that will always be with us.
When we read your books, we see another America than that described by Hollywood and its supermen. Can we still talk about values such as human rights, the rule of law and so on in USA?
As with most things of import, maintaining justice and a system of fairness is a never-ending struggle. As long as there are good people who respect law and an ideal of justice for all, we shall have some semblance of a just society. Too often, unfortunately, good people tend to shy away from sticking their neck out; people don’t want to get involved. But a healthy, vibrant democracy depends on an educated and involved electorate.
America prides itself on a rule of law, but often that principle is shoved aside or jettisoned completely. There are numerous examples of unjust decision-making and behavior in our criminal justice system, but on the whole the system tends to work. For one of the world’s largest nations, America probably has one of the fairest and best functioning systems of justice. That does not mean it cannot be improved and a greater emphasis placed upon human rights and just treatment for all, not just the well-to-do.
Do you think that politicians like Bush, Kissinger, etc. have their place in prisons because of their wars against the peoples of the world or are they above the laws?
There is certainly considerable evidence to support the argument that President Bush’s invasion of Iraq is one of the worst and most costly in American history. A man of little skill, less intellectual curiosity, and dependence on more strident, conniving political actors destabilized an already fragile part of the world. It is difficult to calibrate the immense damage that was done to people of the region as well as America’s standing around the world. The bloody mess that resulted from our effort to take out Saddam and then embark on a nation building campaign contributed to Bush leaving office as one of the nation’s most reviled presidents.
Though imprisonment may have been warranted in the minds of some, such a result was very unlikely. Even President Richard Nixon, thought by all to have committed crimes in the Watergate scandal, never did a day behind bars. Though there are a few notable exceptions, it is generally true that the more money and the more power one has – especially high government officials – the less chance that such an individual will ever do a day in jail.
Interview realized by Mohsen Abdelmoumen
Who is Allen M. Hornblum?
Allen M. Hornblum is ajournalist, a former criminal justice official and a political organizer based inPhiladelphia. He is also anauthorwho tackles controversial, historically under-covered topics in the areas of organized crime, Soviet espionage, and medical ethics. His books include: Acres of SkinHuman Experiments at Holmesburg Prison(1998);The Invisible Harry Gold: The Man Who Gave the Soviets the Atom Bomb(2001); Philadelphia’s City Hall(2003);Confessions of a Second Story Man: Junior Kripplebauer and the K & A Gang (2006); Sentenced to Science: One Black Man’s Story of Imprisonment in America (2007); Against Their Will: The Secret History of Medical Experimentation on Children in Cold War America (2013).
Prior to becoming an author, Allen Hornblum had a varied career that included political organizing, college teaching, and many years in various facets of the criminal justice system. He served as the Chief-of-Staffof the Philadelphia Sheriff’s Office, a member of the Pennsylvania Crime Commission, and the Pennsylvania Commission for Crime & Delinquency amongst others. Crime and punishment, and the history of imprisonment became permanent interests for him and he visited such institutions as Strangeways, Mountjoy, Le Sante and Regensdorf Penitentiaries.
Allen Hornblum graduatedPenn State Universityand earned graduate degrees fromVillanovaand Temple Universities. His research and books have been widely covered by the media and have been featured on Good Morning America, the CBS Evening News, CNN, the BBC, numerous radio shows, and just about every newspaper in the country including the front pages of the New York Timesand the Philadelphia Inquirer. Allen Hornblum is often asked to lecture on his research and has presented his work to a diverse group including; the National Institutes of Health, the British Medical Association, the FBI, numerous medical schools, as well as Brown, Columbia, and Penn State Universities.