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Drug Testing on Inmates

To the Editor:

Re ''Safe Drug Testing in Prisons'' (editorial, Aug. 23):

There is no reason to trust the department of corrections or big drug companies with the lives of prisoners. Past experiences do not allow for trust of either institution.

The selection of poor, mostly minority men for experimentation is suspect. Yes, prisoners tend to be among the sickest, most disease-prone people in society because of the way they've been treated in the United States prison system.

The fact that most are men of color and are both mentally and physically ill is no coincidence.

If the drug companies are looking for an informed control group on which to experiment, let me suggest the freshman class of one of the elite universities. See what kind of reaction you get from that!

Sam Rivera
Senior Director
Health and Transitional Services
The Fortune Society
New York, Aug. 23, 2006


PHILADELPHIA, Aug. 7 -- An influential federal panel of medical advisers has recommended that the government loosen regulations that severely limit the testing of pharmaceuticals on prison inmates, a practice that was all but stopped three decades ago after revelations of abuse.

The proposed change includes provisions intended to prevent problems that plagued earlier programs. Nevertheless, it has dredged up a painful history of medical mistreatment and sparked debate among prison rights advocates and researchers about whether prisoners can truly make uncoerced decisions, given the environment they live in.

Supporters of such programs cite the possibility of benefit to prison populations, and the potential for contributing to the greater good.

Until the early 1970's, about 90 percent of all pharmaceutical products were tested on prison inmates, federal officials say. But such research diminished sharply in 1974 after revelations of abuse at prisons like Holmesburg here, where inmates were paid hundreds of dollars a month to test items as varied as dandruff treatments and dioxin, and where they were exposed to radioactive, hallucinogenic and carcinogenic chemicals.

In addition to addressing the abuses at Holmesburg, the regulations were a reaction to revelations in 1972 surrounding what the government called the Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male, which was begun in the 1930's and lasted 40 years. In it, several hundred mostly illiterate men with syphilis in rural Alabama were left untreated, even after a cure was discovered, so that researchers could study the disease.

"What happened at Holmesburg was just as gruesome as Tuskegee, but at Holmesburg it happened smack dab in the middle of a major city, not in some backwoods in Alabama," said Allen M. Hornblum, a Temple University urban studies professor and the author of "Acres of Skin," a 1998 book detailing the Holmesburg research. "It just goes to show how prisons are truly distinct institutions where the walls don't just serve to keep inmates in, they also serve to keep public eyes out."

Critics also doubt the merits of pharmaceutical testing on prisoners who often lack basic health care.

Alvin Bronstein, a Washington lawyer who helped found the National Prison Project, an American Civil Liberties Union program, said he did not believe that altering the regulations risked a return to the days of Holmesburg.

"With the help of external review boards that would include a prisoner advocate," Mr. Bronstein said, "I do believe that the potential benefits of biomedical research outweigh the potential risks."

Holmesburg closed in 1995 but was partly reopened in July to help ease overcrowding at other prisons.

Under current regulations, passed in 1978, prisoners can participate in federally financed biomedical research if the experiment poses no more than "minimal" risks to the subjects. But a report formally presented to federal officials on Aug. 1 by the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences advised that experiments with greater risks be permitted if they had the potential to benefit prisoners. As an added precaution, the report suggested that all studies be subject to an independent review.

"The current regulations are entirely outdated and restrictive, and prisoners are being arbitrarily excluded from research that can help them," said Ernest D. Prentice, a University of Nebraska genetics professor and the chairman of a Health and Human Services Department committee that requested the study. Mr. Prentice said the regulation revision process would begin at the committee's next meeting, on Nov. 2.

The discussion comes as the biomedical industry is facing a shortage of testing subjects. In the last two years, several pain medications, including Vioxx and Bextra, have been pulled off the market because early testing did not include large enough numbers of patients to catch dangerous problems.

And the committee's report comes against the backdrop of a prison population that has more than quadrupled, to about 2.3 million, over the last 30 years and that disproportionately suffers from H.I.V. and hepatitis C, diseases that some researchers say could be better controlled if new research were permitted in prisons.

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