Survivor’s daughter appreciates city apology for Holmesburg prison experiments, urges Penn to do more

“My father was sick when he came home. He was a whole different person.”

Guards stand outside the control room at the hub of the closed Holmesburg Prison during the 2015 filming of 'Death House'

Guards stand outside the control room at the hub of the closed Holmesburg Prison during the 2015 filming of 'Death House'

Emma Lee / WHYY
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Adrianne Jones-Alston’s life mimics that of her late father Leodus Jones down to how she organizes her desk. She laughed as she recalled visiting her father’s Philadelphia home office and seeing how his papers and pens lined up exactly hers did back home in Virginia.

“My father has influenced my life in a big way,” Jones-Alston told Billy Penn.

Her father passed down a passion for activism, she said — one which she now channels into seeking justice for the victims and survivors of the unethical experiments conducted at Northeast Philly’s Holmesburg Prison.

Her father was one of those survivors.

The City of Philadelphia issued an apology at the beginning of October for its role in experiments University of Pennsylvania dermatologist Albert Kligman conducted at the prison in the 1950s through ’70s. The experiments exposed hundreds of incarcerated, mostly Black men to infectious diseases, psychotic drugs, and other toxic chemicals over the course of three decades, leaving enduring mental and physical trauma.

“We know that the historical impact and trauma of this practice of medical racism has extended for generations — all the way through to the present day,” said the press release from Mayor Jim Kenney. “We are also sorry it took far too long to hear these words.”

Jones-Alston loved her father, but described her home life after his return from Holmesburg in the 1960s as “chaotic,” something she now considers a byproduct of the experimental chemical exposures to his brain he endured while incarcerated.

“My father was sick when he came home. He was a whole different person. His whole mood had changed,” she said, recalling struggles with mental and physical illnesses. “I wasn’t used to seeing him like that.”

Despite the difficulties, Jones after his release began fighting for reparations and accountability. He organized community members, joined lawsuits, and protested on Penn’s campus.

For decades, calls for justice went largely unanswered. The university celebrated Kligman, who died in 2010, and the millions of dollars his experiments generated through the patenting of the anti-acne drug Retin-A. In 2002, a class action lawsuit by nearly 300 people formerly incarcerated at Holmesburg against Penn, Kligman, the City of Philadelphia, and two prominent pharmaceutical companies was thrown out because the statute of limitations had expired.

“Some people probably should have went to jail back then,” Jones-Alston said. “People were harmed, and a lot of people got rich.”

The experiments remained one of Penn’s best kept secrets for decades, but recent activism from survivors and their descendants alongside support from allies has brought renewed attention to one of the grounding examples of medical racism in Philadelphia’s history.

“We are hopeful this formal apology brings at least a small measure of closure to those impacted by this disgraceful and unethical exploitation,” city spokesperson Kevin Lessard told Billy Penn in mid-October. The apology was spurred by an opinion piece in the Philadelphia Tribune from Michael Coard that likened Holmesburg to the Tuskegee syphilis experiment.

Prior to this, Penn had issued an apology written with weaker language that called the experiments “terribly disrespectful” and stated the tests were not “morally acceptable, even if Dr. Kligman and his contemporaries believed them to be,” despite little evidence indicating Kligman believed his work to be moral.

The university also sunsetted the annual named lectureship for Kligman and created increased opportunities for people of color in dermatology by committing to funding a multi-year program called Diversity and Equity in Dermatologic Research, Education and Care.

A spokesperson from Penn declined to comment on the city’s recent apology and instead sent a link to the 2021 statement.

The University of Pennsylvania removed Kligman's name from a professorship and committed funds to dermatology research focused on equity and diversity, but stopped short of an apology

The University of Pennsylvania removed Kligman's name from a professorship and committed funds to dermatology research focused on equity and diversity

Mark Henninger / Imagic Digital

The erosion of trust and lasting legacy of harm

“A lot of this is a long time coming,” said Jules Lipoff, a dermatologist and clinical associate professor at Temple University’s medical school who spent years researching and writing about Kligman.

Lipoff worked for nearly a decade in Penn’s dermatology department — the same one that employed and long heralded the now-disgraced professor. Lipoff called the city’s October apology “excellent” and “very specific about the harms that were done,” but emphasized the ongoing process of redressing and healing from the wounds Kligman and Penn inflicted.

“This is not something that can just be resolved, ever,” Lipoff said. “It’s this horrible thing that happened and can never be undone, and as a result we have to perpetually grapple with it and talk about it.”

Jones-Alston also expressed appreciation for the Kenney administration’s apology, which arrived in the wake of her father’s own activism, noting it was something “numerous mayors had the opportunity to do.”

She often asked if she’ll seek financial reparations, Jones-Alston said, but told Billy Penn it has never been about the money.

“I’m okay with an apology, and a college scholarship or something like that, for example,” she said, urging institutions like Penn to “give something back” to the community they took so much from.

Lessard, the city spokesperson, said Philadelphia is “not currently pursuing” compensation for the survivors of Kligman’s experiments and their families.

Jaquelyn Jahn, assistant professor in Drexel’s Department of Epidemiology and Ubuntu Center on Racism, said that the legacy of Kligman’s atrocities continues to impact people inside and outside of prisons. Incarcerated people often go without adequate preventative health care, which can lead to more severe problems down the line — made worse by a mistrust of health systems stemming from experimental programs like the one Kligman was allowed to perpetrate.

“It’s hard to disentangle this really poignant example of past abuse from the ongoing medical neglect that’s happening for many people,” Jahn said.

According to Jahn, the most critical next steps involve listening to the needs of survivors while addressing the inadequate healthcare offered inside and outside of prisons. Experiments like Kligman’s are “not separate from other forms of structural racism that continue to harm people in cities like Philadelphia and elsewhere,” she added.

Though grateful for the city’s apology, Jones-Alston said her work as an activist is far from done.

She feels energized by the young people who have gotten involved in her fight for justice, and she knows there is more to come from her efforts. As Jones-Alston moves forward, she has connected with people across the country impacted by the legacies of mass incarceration and medical racism, and is even currently being mentored by the descendent of a survivor of the Tuskegee syphilis experiments.

Most importantly, Jones-Alston said, she feels honored, “because I heard apologies that my father fought to hear.”