Temple University instructor and prison activist Allen Hornblum is testifying in a lawsuit brought by prison inmates who say they have been injured and maimed due to years of illegal medical tests. The lawsuit, filed in October 2000 on behalf of 298 former inmates, claims the testing exposed the inmates to infectious diseases, radiation, dioxin and psychotropic drugs ? all without their informed consent.
Alfons J. Skorski, 52, has a scarred leg he says resulted from an athlete’s foot test at Philadelphia’s Holmesburg Prison in 1970. A week later his foot lost all feeling and he could walk only “by taking a step forward with my left foot and dragging my right foot.”Even now, he says, “if I don’t concentrate on that right foot it will still droop down, causing me to trip.”
It names as defendants the city of Philadelphia; Dr. Albert Kligman, a University of Pennsylvania dermatologist who conducted much of the research and is credited with developing the acne and anti-wrinkle treatment Retin A; Temple university; and Johnson & Johnson and the Dow Chemical Co., whose products were among those tested on inmates. The medical testing at Holmesburg began in 1951 and didn’t end until 1974, when it was banned, Hornblum says.
A federal judge has ruled that the statute of limitations for such lawsuits expired about 20 years ago, says Tom Nocella, attorney for the plaintiffs. But the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals is expected to hear oral arguments on an appeal in July.
Councilman David Cohen wants to “see that the city ceases the dangerous stance in which it, instead of answering questions, tries to hide behind legal technicalities.”The city and other defendants have argued that “even if you’re right, you’re too late,” Cohen says. “We don’t think that kind of defense makes any sense.”
After Hornblum’s 1998 book ?Acres of Skin? was published, the University of Pennsylvania offered to examine any former Holmesburg inmates who thought they were harmed by the studies, and “that offer still stands,” says spokeswoman Rebecca Harmon.
Kligman says, “To the best of my knowledge … no long-term harm was done to any person who voluntarily participated.”
Dow Chemical Co. spokesman Scott Wheeler said the lawsuit is a result of “applying what was common practice in the 1960s to 2002 eyes. All this is something that happened 40 years ago.”
Johnson & Johnson says it tested some cosmetic and skin-care products in the prison in the late 1960s and early 1970s but didn’t test any ingredients cited in the prisoners’ lawsuit, and hasn’t done testing on prison inmates since, according to spokesman Marc Marceau.
The federal government waited 65 years to apologize for the 1930s Tuskegee experiment, in which government doctors let black men in an Alabama county go untreated for syphilis. Cohen says, “We don’t want to have to wait until there are just three survivors.”
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