'In Prison Air': Echoes of Life Behind Bars Thomas Roma has a new book of photos of some of the cells of now-closed Holmesburg Prison in Pennsylvania, where inmates "volunteered" to use their own bodies to test everything from skin creams to LSD.
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'In Prison Air': Echoes of Life Behind Bars

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'In Prison Air': Echoes of Life Behind Bars

'In Prison Air': Echoes of Life Behind Bars

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Madeleine Brand.

In a few minutes, French singer Benjamin Biolay dubs catchy beats over samples of JFK speeches.

But first, in the northeast corner of Philadelphia, an abandoned penitentiary shelters a terrible past. For more than a century, the Holmesburg Prison housed convicts in its long, thin cell blocks. Holmesburg is notorious for the experiments carried out on prisoners there over a 25-year period. Before it was shut down a decade ago, as many as five inmates occupied a single 6-by-8-foot cell. Those abandoned cells attracted Thomas Roma. He's the director of photography at Columbia University, and he's just published a book of images shot at Holmesburg. It's called "In Prison Air." And Thomas Roma joins us now from New York.

Welcome to the program.

Mr. THOMAS ROMA ("In Prison Air"): Oh, thanks.

BRAND: Before we talk about your photographs, let's talk about the background of this prison, the history that I alluded to in the introduction.

Mr. ROMA: OK.

BRAND: And tell us about these experiments. What happened?

Mr. ROMA: What I learned was that a professor from the University of Pennsylvania headed up experiments conducted on inmates. There's a quote, a really chilling quote that when he first came to the prison, he said, "All I saw before me were acres of skin. It was a like a farmer seeing a fertile field for the first time." The experiments were conducted on the skin of the inmates. And this was for private companies. They would pay the prisoners, pay them for pieces of their skin, patches an inch or two square, and they would put chemicals on their skin and note the reaction, including horrible, horrible things, you know, toxins, things that were known to be toxins. At any one time, more than half the prisoners sold pieces of their skin in these experiments.

It should be noted that right before this, after World War II, the Nuremberg Code was written to exclude this kind of thing. And the Nuremberg Code was simply ignored and the experiments went on.

BRAND: So this prison closed in 1996 and...

Mr. ROMA: Yeah.

BRAND: ...you went back a few years after that?

Mr. ROMA: Yes, I guess two and a half years after it closed.

BRAND: And when you went there, you saw cells that were dilapidated beyond belief from the photographs that I'm looking at. And let's just say that if the listeners want to take a look at your photographs as we're talking, they can go to our Web site at npr.org. And these photographs look like a prison that has been out of use for decades.

Mr. ROMA: It was frightening. The prison had only recently been closed, and I was just shocked at the condition, the peeling paint. What was particularly poignant to me are the photographs of the toilets. And some of them you could see the toilet, which was right beside the cell door, and you could see woven into the metal cell door that a guard could just peer into bits of cloth and paper to get some privacy. And it deeply moved me to think about in that situation, with all those other men in the cell, to try to do as much as you can to get any privacy is, even in conditions like that--I know for a fact that if we spend enough time looking at a photograph, the details will inform the unconscious in some way and hopefully add to at least some understanding of what we're looking at.

BRAND: I don't want to state the obvious, but maybe I should state the obvious...

Mr. ROMA: Yeah, go ahead.

BRAND: ...that in a lot of these photographs, the peeling paint really looks like skin. And...

Mr. ROMA: Yeah.

BRAND: ...you even mentioned the experiments on the skin.

Mr. ROMA: Oh, yeah, no question.

BRAND: So was that a conscious decision on your part to portray it that way?

Mr. ROMA: Absolutely. And there was one room about the size of five or six cells that I first saw with the paint peeling off the wall, almost a reaction to all the suffering that was going on. And I thought about photographing it, and I--because it was amazing; it was an amazing structure. And then I thought I should limit the photographs to the actual cells because I didn't want to make a book about the prison. I wanted to make a book about the prisoners. And I do think the peeling paint is some kind of metaphor for the suffering that went on there.

BRAND: Thomas Roma is director of photography at Columbia University. His new book is called "In Prison Air: The Cells of Holmesburg Prison."

And, Thomas Roma, thank you very much for joining us.

Mr. ROMA: Thank you.

BRAND: And again, to look at some of Thomas Roma's photographs of the cells of Holmesburg Prison, go to our Web site, npr.org.

More coming up on DAY TO DAY from NPR News.

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