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Holmesburg Prison

Holmesburg Prison was built in 1896 and was in continuous use until 1995, and portions of the campus are still currently used for prisoner overflow and work programs. While one does not expect prisons to have cheery histories, Holmesburg's past manages to include some particularly barbarous instances of rioting, rape, torture, corruption, medical experimentation, and murder.

According to a Philly.com article, "Patrick N. Curran was warden and Robert F. Fromhold was his deputy in 1973, when two inmates who had come to speak to them with a complaint produced prison-made shivs and stabbed the officials to death.

* Twenty-five leaders of a 1938 hunger strike were locked up in a disciplinary section of the prison known as "Klondike" or the "Bake Ovens." The heat was turned up to 190 degrees in mid-August, and when the doors were opened after 58 hours, four inmates had (in the coroner's words) ''roasted to death." Ten officials and guards were tried, but only two were convicted and given light sentences of 1 to 3 years.

* In 1952, inmate Thomas Donato was found dead in a bathtub. Officials said he had drowned. An autopsy showed he had been beaten to death.

* Blood spattered the walls and soaked the floor in the mess hall on July 4, 1970, as about 250 inmates - some armed with knives, meat cleavers and table legs - attacked other inmates and guards and took over part of the prison. Police Commissioner Frank Rizzo, heading a 400-man raiding team, restored order. Sixty-nine inmates and 27 guards required some hospitalization. One prisoner's hand was nearly chopped off by a cleaver.

* Five inmates who tunneled out of Eastern State Penitentiary in 1945 were sent for safekeeping to Holmesburg, where they managed an even more daring escape in 1947. Somehow they got a gun and captured a guard as a shield. ''Slick Willie" Sutton, hit man Frederick "the Angel" Tenuto, tunnel mastermind Clarence Kleindiest and the others went over the wall on a ladder while gun-tower guards held their fire. Sutton remained free for the next five years. Tenuto was never caught.

* In 1966, the Food and Drug Administration censured a University of Pennsylvania doctor for improper record-keeping. He had used countless prisoners in scores of tests of new drugs for 33 different pharmaceutical firms. Later, an inmate lab assistant was arrested for using the position to coerce sex from weaker inmates.

* Prisoners claimed many were beaten by guards in retaliation for a five- hour riot in October 1989 that injured 94 inmates and 54 guards."

More detail on the medical experiments, from Wikipedia's "Unethical Human Experiments in the United States": "From approximately 1951 to 1974, the Holmesburg Prison in Pennsylvania was the site of extensive dermatological research operations, using prisoners as subjects. Led by Dr. Albert M. Kligman of the University of Pennsylvania, the studies were performed on behalf of Dow Chemical Company, the U.S. Army, and Johnson & Johnson. In one of the studies, for which Dow Chemical paid Kligman $10,000, Kligman injected dioxin — a highly toxic, carcinogenic compound found in Agent Orange, which Dow was manufacturing for use in Vietnam at the time — into 70 prisoners (most of them black). The prisoners developed severe lesions which went untreated for seven months. Dow Chemical wanted to study the health effects of dioxin and other herbicides, and how they affect human skin, because workers at their chemical plants were developing chloracne. In the study, Kligman applied roughly the amount of dioxin Dow employees were being exposed to. In 1980 and 1981, some of the people who were used in this study sued Professor Kligman for a variety of health problems, including lupus and psychological damage.

Kligman later continued his dioxin studies, increasing the dosage of dioxin he applied to 10 prisoners' skin to 7,500 micrograms of dioxin, which is 468 times the dosage that the Dow Chemical official Gerald K. Rowe had authorized him to administer. As a result, the prisoners developed inflammatory pustules and papules.

The Holmesburg program also paid hundreds of inmates a nominal stipend to test a wide range of cosmetic products and chemical compounds, whose health effects were unknown at the time. Upon his arrival at Holmesberg, Kligman is claimed to have said "All I saw before me were acres of skin ... It was like a farmer seeing a fertile field for the first time". It was reported in a 1964 issue of Medical News that 9 out of 10 prisoners at Holmesburg Prison were medical test subjects.

In 1967, the U.S. Army paid Kligman to apply skin-blistering chemicals to the faces and backs of inmates at Holmesburg to, in Kligman's words, "learn how the skin protects itself against chronic assault from toxic chemicals, the so-called hardening process."

If you'd like to learn more about this location, it is a featured chapter in the new Abandoned America book Abandoned America: The Age of Consequences. Signed copies are available through my website, or you can find (unsigned) copies available through Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and many other online booksellers across the globe. For more images click on the thumbnails below.