HomeNewsActivists applaud city apology for Holmesburg Prison experiments

Activists applaud city apology for Holmesburg Prison experiments

Allen Hornblum
Adrianne Jones-Alston
Michael Coard

The City of Philadelphia last week apologized for the experiments conducted on inmates by the University of Pennsylvania at Holmesburg Prison from 1951-74.

Mayor Jim Kenney said, “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. 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.

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“Without excuse, we formally and officially extend a sincere apology to those who were subjected to this inhumane and horrific abuse. We are also sorry it took far too long to hear these words. To the families and loved ones across generations who have been impacted by this deplorable chapter in our city’s history, we are hopeful this formal apology brings you at least a small measure of closure. Recognizing the deep distrust experiments like this have created in our communities of color, we vow to continue to fight the inequities and disparities that continue to this day.”

The city said inmates were intentionally exposed to pharmaceuticals, viruses, fungus, asbestos and dioxin, a component of Agent Orange. Many were illiterate black men who took the payments in hopes of making bail.

The apology came two days before a scheduled news conference outside the former prison, 8215 Torresdale Ave., which closed in 1995.

Saturday’s event went on as scheduled, led by Adrianne Jones-Alston, daughter of test subject Leodus Jones and head of the Philadelphia Inmate Justice Coalition. Jones-Alston was joined by, among others, attorney Michael Coard and Allen Hornblum, author of Acres of Skin: Human Experiments at Holmesburg Prison (1951-74) and Sentenced to Science.

Hornblum’s books recalled the painful, dangerous and unethical treatments led by Dr. Albert Kligman, a renowned dermatologist who co-invented Retin-A. Penn apologized last year and stripped Kligman, a major donor to the university, of his honors.

Jones-Alston thanked Kenney and said the Oct. 8 news conference would be “the first event of many.” Others on hand included students and staff from Germanna Community College (Virginia). Jones-Alston is a student there.

In addition, there is an effort to erect a Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission marker to memorialize the victims of the experiments and educate the public about the tests.

The apologies by Penn and the city could help any test subjects and their families be successful in demands for reparations. ••

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