Thirty years ago, the federal government severely limited medical experimentation on prisoners after pharmaceutical companies and medical researchers used Philadelphia inmates as medical guinea pigs, says the Philadelphia Inquirer. An independent panel has suggested easing those restrictions. With the lingering specter of Nazi experiments and Pennsylvania’s Holmesburg Prison scandal, some say the door should remain shut. “This is a dangerous cul-de-sac to go down again,” said A. Bernard Ackerman, a New York dermatologist who worked at Holmesburg Prison during the trials. “There has to be experimentation in medicine, but populations that are aged, vulnerable or defective mentally should not be used.”
An Institute of Medicine report yesterday suggested that prisoners could benefit from clinical trials so long as the trials were in the final phase of Food and Drug Administration approval, did not involve any cosmetic toxicity testing, and ensured that half the subjects in each trial were non-inmates. Among other restrictions, trials would be subject to an independent review panel, including a prisoner advocate. There would be no compensation and no special treatment at the prison. “I don’t want the door open to everything,” said G. David Curry, an Institute of Medicine committee member and criminology professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis who has conducted sociological studies involving prisoners. “I can’t imagine how abusive that could be.” The report said that even with the federal restrictions, a small number of prison research studies are under way. No one knows what is being done where, and there is no central agency to oversee them. The University of Pennsylvania is conducting about 30 studies involving prisoners, including reentry programs and alcohol treatment programs.