Panel urges wider testing of drugs on inmates

August 13, 2006|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

PHILADELPHIA -- An influential federal panel of medical advisers has recommended that the government loosen regulations that severely limit the testing of pharmaceuticals on prison inmates.

The proposed change includes provisions intended to prevent abuses that emerged in 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 prisoners and the potential for contributing to the greater good.

Until the early 1970s, 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, such as 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.

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," he said, "I do believe that the potential benefits of biomedical research outweigh the potential risks."

But critics have doubts.

"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," said Paul Wright, editor of Prison Legal News, an independent monthly review. "I have to imagine there are larger financial motivations here."

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 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.

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