The prisoner as model organism: malaria research at Stateville Penitentiary

Nathaniel Comfort

The prisoner as model organism: malaria research at Stateville Penitentiary

Abstract

In a military-sponsored research project begun during the Second World War, inmates of the Stateville Penitentiary in Illinois were infected with malaria and treated with experimental drugs that sometimes had vicious side effects. They were made into reservoirs for the disease and they provided a food supply for the mosquito cultures. They acted as secretaries and technicians, recording data on one another, administering malarious mosquito bites and experimental drugs to one another, and helping decide who was admitted to the project and who became eligible for early parole as a result of his participation. Thus, the prisoners were not simply research subjects; they were deeply constitutive of the research project. Because a prisoner’s time on the project was counted as part of his sentence, and because serving on the project could shorten one’s sentence, the project must be seen as simultaneously serving the functions of research and punishment. Michel Foucault wrote about such ‘mixed mechanisms’ in his Discipline and punish. His shining example of such a ‘transparent’ and subtle style of punishment was the panopticon, Jeremy Bentham’s architectural invention of prison cellblocks arrayed around a central guard tower. Stateville prison was designed on Bentham’s model; Foucault featured it in his own discussion. This paper, then, explores the power relations in this highly idiosyncratic experimental system, in which the various roles of model organism, reagent, and technician are all occupied by sentient beings who move among them fluidly. This, I argue, created an environment in the Stateville hospital wing more panoptic than that in the cellblocks. Research and punishment were completely interpenetrating, and mutually reinforcing.


Comfort N. The prisoner as model organism: malaria research at Stateville Penitentiary. Stud Hist Philos Biol Biomed Sci. 2009;40(3):190-203. doi:10.1016/j.shpsc.2009.06.007

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