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Look elsewhere for subjects: Editorial by PLN Editor Paul Wright on Prisoner Experiments

USA Today, Aug. 21, 2006.
Look elsewhere for subjects: Editorial by PLN Editor Paul Wright on Prisoner Experiments - USA Today 2007

Look elsewhere for subjects

Posted 8/21/2006 10:02 PM ET USA Today

By Paul Wright

More than 100 prisoners in Washington and Oregon were paid $10 a month to have their testicles irradiated by government researchers. Prisoners in Pennsylvania were among those who had dioxin rubbed into their skin. They were also given LSD and other hallucinogens by military scientists. These abuses continued well into the 1970s. And until the early 1990s, private companies used prisoners in Arkansas and Arizona as plasma donors, which dramatically increased the contamination of the U.S. blood supply with hepatitis and HIV.

The United States has a lengthy history of abusing prisoners in the name of medical research. It was this well-documented history that led to the near prohibition of federally funded prisoner medical experimentation by the 1970s. The Institute of Medicine's proposal to loosen these recommendations is ill-advised and shows a poor understanding of the modern American prison system.

The key element to any ethical system of human subject testing is informed, voluntary consent. Prisons and jails fail on all counts. All 50 states and the federal government have banned sex among prisoners and staff because detention facilities are inherently coercive, and prisoners cannot give "consent" in any meaningful sense of the word.

The average American prisoner is, statistically, likely to be mentally ill, substance addicted and functionally illiterate. Prisoners also tend to be impoverished. Given the decades of abuse medical experimenters have inflicted on U.S. prisoners, we know that this is an especially vulnerable group.

The claim that prisoners, very few of whom even have access to adequate medical care, would somehow benefit from cutting-edge research would be laughable if the consequences were not so serious.

Prisoners are still being used for privately funded medical research. Investigative reports have found that these experiments are shrouded in secrecy, and the prisoners are unlikely to have given meaningful consent. They often have "volunteered" in a desperate attempt to get what they perceive to be better medical care than they otherwise would.

The door that was mostly shut 30 years ago on prisoner medical testing should remain firmly closed.

Paul Wright is the founder and editor of Prison Legal News, a monthly human rights magazine, and co-editor of the forthcoming book Prison Profiteers: Who Profits from Mass Imprisonment