The proposed changes would include rules meant to prevent previous abuses from happening again -- though critics of the recommendations say prisoner abuse is inevitable. Prisoner advocates also sharply criticize the panel's claim that loosening restrictions on prisoner testing would serve to offer the prisoners access to better medical care.
"It strikes me as pretty ridiculous to start talking about prisoners getting access to cutting-edge research and medications when they can't even get penicillin and high blood pressure pills," says Paul Wright, editor of Prison Legal News. "I have to imagine there are larger financial motivations here."
"The history of Big Pharma is rife with the use of prisoners for medical experiments," said Mike Adams, a consumer health advocate and critic of pharmaceutical companies. "If you want to see what happens to prisoners when medical experiments are allowed, just read about the history of Bayer, Nazi prison camps and IG Farben. Or examine the history of medical experimentation on adults and children right here in the United States." (Click here to read the timeline history of medical experiments on humans.)
The panel's suggestions come after the pharmaceutical industry has seen recent difficulties recruiting test subjects, even when the subjects are compensated. The pharmaceutical industry says it was not involved in the panel's decision, though critics say it will be the recipient of many of the benefits of increased testing on prisoners.
Critics cite the Holmesburg prison scandal, which involved University of Pennsylvania researchers testing substances such as radioactive materials, hallucinogenic drugs and carcinogenic materials on prisoners who may not have given informed consent.
"Free and informed consent becomes pretty questionable when prisoners don't hold the keys to their own cells, and in many cases they can't read, yet they are signing a document that it practically takes a law degree to understand," says Daniel S. Murphy, a professor of criminal justice at Appalachian State University.
Murphy also criticized the government's proposed preventative measures to prevent another Holmesburg incident -- which include possibly requiring half of all test members to be non-prisoners to avoid testing substances that civilians wouldn't volunteer for -- saying such precautions faced strong resistance from federal officials: "And I fear they're most likely the parts that will end up getting cut as these recommendations become new regulations," Murphy says.
Drug companies say that prisoners will "benefit" from such experiments. But Mike Adams disagrees, saying, "The idea that prisoners will benefit from being used in medical experiments is preposterous. The primary beneficiaries are clearly drug companies whose products are so universally dangerous to human health that they can't even pay enough people to volunteer for the clinical trials."
The recruitment of prisoners for medical experiments is a desperate ploy by an industry steeped in human rights abuses," he added.