By The Takeaway A few days ago in Oklahoma, a chaotic series of events led to the botched lethal injection of a prisoner. Clayton D. Lockett,
Against Their Will: The Secret History of Medical Experimentation on Children in Cold War America
By Allen M. Hornblum, Judith L. Newman, and Gregory J. Dober
266 pages. $27.00
Reviewed by Christopher Zoukis
According to Oswald Spengler, “Moral is a conscious and planned causality of conduct, apart from all particulars of actual life and character, something eternal and universally valid, not only without time but hostile to time and for that very reason ‘true.’” Spengler goes on, adding that “Every moral action is a piece of this sacrifice, and an ethical life-course is an unbroken chain of such sacrifices. Above all, the offering of sympathy, com-passion, in which the inwardly strong gives up his superiority to the powerless.”
What happens when educated, powerful people withhold sympathy and compassion toward the powerless? What happens when individuals set aside Spengler’s definition of morality and adopt the Jesuit philosophy that the end justifies the means? Answer: despicable events occur, events like those described in the difficult and frightening book by Allen M. Hornblum,Judith L. Newman, and Gregory J. Dober – Against Their Will. The book is difficult to read not because it’s dry and overly literary, but rather because it’s emotionally grueling. And it’s frightening because it demonstrates the ethical sinkhole into which humans can descend.
Against Their Will relates a true story, the story of children exploited as subjects in medical experiments. The medical experiments were not performed by psychotic Nazi physicians, like Dr. Mengele; they were performed by ruthless, single-minded American doctors of medicine who deluded themselves, believing they were pursuing reality, truth, undeviatingly to the end. And in their pursuit, they became monsters of the worst sort.
Within two days of his 2009 arrival at the Federal Bureau of Prisons’ “Special Management Unit” at the United States Penitentiary in Lewisburg, PA, William Thrower was beaten and stomped into unconsciousness by his gang member cellmate, with whom he was assigned to share a tiny, ancient cell, 24 hours a day. After a month in a coma, Thrower now suffers from “severe cognitive impairment,” that, according to a government neurologist requires his participation in basic functioning therapy. Nonetheless, Thrower was returned to an SMU program. His lawsuit was later dismissed because his allegations did not constitute an “atypical” hardship for a prisoner.
Thrower’s experience is not unique; the federal district courts are rife with similar lawsuits by prisoners confined in such programs, alleging inhumane conditions, murders, “gladiator” fights arranged by guards, and other atrocities generally attributed to societies less enlightened than ours. Yet the federal government’s use of “control units” like SMU has expanded exponentially in the last decade, as have the states. And while many correctional industry experts insist that such programs are necessary, one might ask at what cost to our national ideals of humane punishment and dignity for all members of our society do these programs exist.
It is well known that the United States incarcerates its citizens at a rate far higher than any other Western nation. More than two million men and women are detained in our prisons and jails at any one time, and we admit more than 1.3 million to such facilities each year.*1 It is perhaps not surprising that government officials and private prison industry corporations have in recent years looked for creative ways to store these men and women in a more manageable and cost-effective manner.
One way to achieve these goals is, of course, to simply lock prisoners in a cell, 24 hours a day. While the courts have generally mandated that it is unconstitutional to do so, they have allowed prison officials to subject prisoners to such treatment provided they are given an hour or so in an outdoor cage a few times a week. In 2005, the last year such figures were compiled, over 80,000 men and women were confined in such conditions.*2