The Cells of Holmesburg Prison (Photography)
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In 1999 photographer Thomas Roma found himself within the
walls of Philadelphia’s Holmesburg Prison, one of the most
notorious prisons in the United States, doing a special
photographic project for Steve Buscemi’s Animal Factory.
During downtime Roma wandered through this nineteenth-
century fortress, walking in and out of many of its seven
hundred or so cells. After Holmesburg’s inception in 1896—
on the occasion of which one Philadelphia reporter
warned, "Abandon all hope all ye who enter here"—it quickly
became the prison for Philadelphia’s worst criminals,
eventually packing up to five prisoners into six by eight
foot cells designed for single-occupancy. After leaving the
site, Roma found his mind often inhabiting the space of the
prison with its halls of flaking paint and graffiti-covered
cells. Overwhelmed by the evidence of the lives spent
inside those small rooms, Roma returned to photograph on
his own, creating the images now collected for In Prison
Air: The Cells of Holmesburg Prison. Holmesburg, closed in
1997, is perhaps most well known for a series of scientific
experiments carried out on its prisoners over a period of
twenty-five years. Sponsored by the U.S. Army, the CIA, the
University of Pennsylvania, The Dow Chemical Company, and
Johnson & Johnson, the experiments tested the effects of
substances ranging from deodorants and hair dyes to LSD and
BZ, a compound ten times as strong as LSD, to radioactive
isotopes and chemical warfare agents. These tests also
included a special climate chamber designed for the study
of skin diseases encountered during World War II. Dr.
Albert Kligman, the architect of the human testing program
at Holmesburg, saw the prison as "acres of skin.…like a
farmer seeing a fertile field for the first time." Now,
Kligman’s tests are considered by many to be one of the
most explicit violations of the Nuremberg Code, as
undereducated and illiterate prisoners almost certainly did
not realize the consequences of their consent. The cells
are now empty of the men that endured their squalor, but
their presence remains through the detritus and graffiti
accumulated over the prison’s century-long history, etched
indelibly into Roma’s master lens.
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