The United States has the largest prison population per capita in the world behind the Seychelles, but in terms of inmates, the tiny island nation has nothing on the US. According to Prison Policy, in total, if you include all the various forms of detention such as prisons, jails, juvenile correctional facilities, and more, there are currently about 2.3 million Americans behind bars. Violence, property crimes, drugs and public order offenses are why most of those prisoners are doing time. What’s goes on in US prisons is also a matter of ongoing controversy often depicted in movies and documentaries, but the atrocities of the past in those prisons, and prisons all over the world, are even more shocking.
Perhaps the worst of all nightmares is being surgically experimented on by a ruthless physician. Such a narrative has been a mainstay in sci-fi and horror fiction for some time, with recent examples being Deadpool and before that The Human Centipede. These ideas didn’t come out of nowhere.
Indeed, we might look back at an American doctor and eugenicist called Leo Stanley. He was the Chief Surgeon at California’s San Quentin State Prison from 1913 to 1951. As a believer in eugenics – the principle that we can be improved by controlled breeding and modifying the body – he started off at the prison by sterilizing all the men he considered beyond redemption. That was the least of it. He also believed he could make an old prisoner more virile by implanting the testicles of young men that had been executed into older inmates. It didn’t really work, but he carried on, only with not enough dead men’s nuts, he turned to using the glands of rams, boars and goats on thousands of inmates.
Such surgical experiments might make us wince, but far worse was done with disease. One such case started in 1956 and went on for 14 years, during which researchers took mentally disabled children from Willowbrook State School in Staten Island, New York, and purposely gave them viral hepatitis. The kids were given food contaminated with the feces of infected persons, which the doctors had told parents amounted to a vaccination. This wasn’t true, and the case goes down as an immoral experiment to find a treatment for the disease. While this is not strictly a prison experiment, the children were for all intents and purposes in detention.
If not for medical science, then prisoners have been used in military experiments. One such experiment happened over a period of 20 years in the 1950s and 70s at the now infamous, and closed down, Holmesburg Prison is Philadelphia. The prison became notorious for its “perfume experiments” – a name the prisoners gave the experiments, but was also known for mind-control experiments. Using mostly black prisoners, scientists at the University of Pennsylvania working with the Dow chemical company, the US Army, and Johnson and Johnson, performed a series of tests by injecting them with powerful, toxic chemicals in order to see how the skin reacts to them. Toxins were also added to prisoners’ toothpaste, deodorant, shampoo, skin creams, and other products. Many of the prisoners became very sick and many had painful and horrific looking skin conditions. It’s thought 9 out of 10 prisoners were tested on. One of the chilling facts from this time is what the leading scientist said when he first walked into the prison and realized how perfect it would be for testing. “All I saw before me were acres of skin … It was like a farmer seeing a fertile field for the first time,” he said.
If that wasn’t bad enough, many inmates were also given LSD in mind control experiments. One of these psychological experiments involved a substance known as EA 3167. The drug, used in chemical warfare, is said to cause “delirium and other psychotic behavior lasting from three to four days with subsequent amnesia.” While it’s thought such methods are on their way out, former detainees of the USA’s notorious detention center at Guantanamo Bay have reported that they too were experimented on with mind-altering drugs.
We will now turn our focus away from the USA and towards Germany. Detailing Nazi atrocities would be a show in itself, so we will talk about perhaps the worst of the worst regarding experiments performed on prisoners in concentration camps. Again, it is the surgical experiments that make the skin crawl the most. Some of these were conducted by Nazi scientist, Josef Mengele, who it is said during 1943 and 1944 performed experiments on almost 1,500 twins in the camps. Twins were initially saved from the gas chamber so the doctor could conduct his tests in the name of eugenics. Stories differ on what he actually did, but according to the BBC he would sometimes take out organs without anesthetic. The BBC also wrote that he had a collection of human eyes of all different colors stuck to his laboratory wall. He was fascinated with eye color, and it’s said he would inject dye into children’s eyes to change the color. Adding to the horror and mystery behind the strange case of Dr. Mengele, whom according to some surviving twins had a fatherly side to him, there is one story that says he sewed two Gypsy twins together to make them conjoined. They later died of gangrene it was reported, after spending three days in terrible agony. Some prisoners were said to have bone, muscle, and nerve transplantation performed on them without anesthesia. The Nazis also conducted all kinds of other experiments, including freezing prisoners to study hypothermia, infecting them with diseases, poisoning them and burning them alive.
Japan also has a dark past involving its treatment of prisoners of war. Many of the worst atrocities were carried out on American POWS, something which has been told in all its lurid detail. In one such article, The Guardian explains that US prisoners were injected with seawater; one man had his lung removed and another man had his head drilled into so doctors could take out some of his brain in an effort to better understand epilepsy. It’s also reported that one of the soldiers had his liver removed, for it later to become dinner for Japanese soldiers. The charge of cannibalism to the Japanese soldiers was never brought, though, due to a lack of evidence. According to a Japanese man who was a medical student at the camp, the experiments had no medical value. “They were being used to inflict as cruel a death as possible on the prisoners,” said the man.
The Japanese imperial army’s penchant for torture didn’t stop in Japan. A research and development center located in China known as Unit 731 was the place where Chinese POWs would experience a kind of hell on Earth. It’s now believed that thousands of POWs experienced live vivisection without anesthesia. Not only soldiers, but local women and children had their organs removed in the name of science. Most would die. It’s said that other prisoners had their limbs removed so the Japanese could study blood loss, and sometimes the doctors would attempt to attach the limbs to the opposite side. The list of cruelties is a long one, and it’s thought thousands of civilians died in the end, many of whom had been purposely infected with a number of diseases. Other prisoners were killed when the Japanese were merely testing how well their guns, bombs and flamethrowers worked.
Over to Russia and life in the Gulag, the Russian prison for so-called enemies of the people. One of a number of horrible ways to die in the Gulag was to have poisons tested on you. It’s reported that a famous doctor used scores of patients while testing deadly poisons at the Gulag’s Laboratory 12, aka, The Chamber. Head of the lab, Grigory Mairanovsky, was looking for a poison that was tasteless but could kill a man in seconds. It’s reported that many of the victims of The Chamber were previously well-respected academics, politicians and artists.
Well, that’s the end of today’s rather macabre show. Do you think that we, as a civilization, have moved past experimenting on prisoners, or do you think it’s still going on today? Let us know in the comments!