Balls at the Walls

Historic $2.4 million settlement may soon be reached in inmate testicular radiation case.

“AT PRESENT I am serving seven years,” Walla Walla State Penitentiary prisoner number 24 wrote in hopes of having his testicles bombarded with radiation. “I am in good health and the money would be helpful.”

Fellow prisoner number 28 figured that getting his balls zapped by X-rays might be of great benefit to others. “Personally,” he wrote in his application for the testicular experiments performed at Washington’s maximum security prison 35 years ago, “I am interested in this program because of how it can help mankind.”

It seemed like a good idea at the time. Inmates were getting 25 cents a day working in prison industries. They could earn $25 and maybe pay a little more on their societal debt by letting it all hang out in the name of science.

And why worry? Former inmate Rob White of Seattle remembers the tests being described as “glorified chest X-rays.” A technician told him he was being exposed to up to 400 rads. Little did he know that, according to experts today, one rad is equal to six chest X-rays.

Thus from 1963 through 1971, 64 state inmates involved in what were labeled “reproductive experiments” were enticed into a makeshift prison lab where, one after another, they lined up, stripped down, and offered their genitalia to radiation.

Some stood in front of a revved-up General Electric X-ray machine, while others lay down on a buzzing bedlike contraption, lowered their testicles through a small opening into a water-filled box, and were zapped for up to 10 minutes a session. Some came back for more.

Inmates later learned they had risked more than a little ball warming from the experiments: Some may have died and others suffered testicular cancer or life-altering medical conditions as a result of the University of Washington program, conducted by Seattle endocrinologist Dr. C. Alvin Paulsen under a private contract with the Atomic Energy Commission (now US Energy Department).

Lured by a bonus of a few dollars more, a number of the human guinea pigs also opted for post-test vasectomies—just to be safe, officials told them.

After the lasting effects and complications of the Cold War tests slowly surfaced over recent decades, present and former prisoners laboriously sought legal recompense and, perhaps, an apology.

This Friday, they may get both.

If inmates and their survivors agree to the terms, a US District Court judge in Spokane will close the dark books on the captive experiments by approving what attorneys say will be a historic $2.4 million class-action settlement from the UW and the state Department of Corrections.

“There is a tentative agreement,” the inmates’ Seattle attorney Brad Keller said last week. As a result of settlement talks ordered earlier this year by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, the state will not admit liability, says Keller, but it will pay out as much as $47,000 to some inmates and offer “an expression of sympathy.” Whether that “could be deemed an apology is open to interpretation,” he notes.

Dr. Paulsen, now 73, defended the tests as acceptable under the conditions of the time. He refused comment in recent years after legal actions were filed against him. But he earlier told Seattle Weekly, “If our work was unethical, then you’d have to say that all the [federal and UW advisory boards] that approved it in those days were completely unethical, and so, no, that’s not true” (see “Rad surgery,” SW, 6/25/97).

The Walla Walla tests—ostensibly intended as a study of radiation’s effects on the fertility of atomic workers—were performed by Paulsen and his onetime college mentor, the late Carl G. Heller. The latter also administered similar experiments at the Oregon State Penitentiary in Salem during the same time period, exposing 67 inmates to testicular radiation under the sponsorship of the Pacific Northwest Research Foundation of Seattle.

The $505,000 Washington study and the $1.2 million Oregon experiment were also funded by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, seeking to learn more about radiation’s effects on astronauts’ testicles. NASA officials and some unnamed astronauts even sat in on Heller’s meetings, documents show, but apparently were not present for the actual radiation sessions.

Back in the 1970s, a group of Oregon inmates filed a $4.3 million class-action suit that proved ineffective, bringing a $2,000 settlement for each subject. But their case did help expose more details of the clandestine tests.

In 1995, a presidential commission on nationwide human experiments found some of the long-ago US tests well-intended and even groundbreaking, but determined the captive Washington and Oregon subjects were in effect coerced and not fully warned of the risks.

In 1997, inmate Melvin Briggs, a onetime state mental patient, settled a groundbreaking lawsuit against Paulsen and the state for an undisclosed amount. The murderer of a 12-year-old Spokane boy in 1965, Briggs was involved in two separate experiments at Walla Walla. Still a state inmate, Briggs says he has had a penis cyst removed and suffers from skin lesions.

Berger and Montague, a Philadelphia law firm specializing in class-action human experiment cases—their past cases include radiation doses and plutonium injections given to patients in New York and Boston, and radioactive cereal fed to retarded children in Boston!–took up the languishing Washington and Oregon prisoner causes with assistance from Byrnes & Keller, Seattle.

Settlement talks continue in the Oregon case. Awaiting final OK in the Washington lawsuit this week is an offer that includes around $43,000 to four original inmate plaintiffs and up to $33,000 to other inmates or their estates. Officials do not yet have a firm final number of inmates or relatives who might accept the settlement, since not all have contacted the court.

“This particular case had importance that went far beyond the claims for money damages,” says attorney Keller. “The fact that human beings in Washington state prisons were used in experiments was a dark chapter in the history of our state. It was a chapter that needed to be told and revealed to the public. And that is what this lawsuit also accomplished.”