U.S. Narcotic Farm in Lexington, Kentucky, was the first drug-treatment center in the country when it opened in 1935, as well as a prison. Decades later, my birth mother, a heroin addict, was a prisoner there. (Photo courtesy University of Kentucky archives.)

“Generous Bonus Doses”

A year after her memoir Prison Baby, Deborah Jiang-Stein digs deeper into dark experiments that could have cost her mother’s life—and her own.

By Deborah Jiang-Stein

Published by www.broadstreetonline.org, March 2015

Last year I visited Louisville, Kentucky, to speak with women in the prison there about life skills. I often tour prisons around the United States to share my personal story about my rise from a traumatic and fragmented start in life; I was born in a prison in West Virginia. I offer the women hope. And on this visit, I got something unexpected in return — more information about my own past.

When I was born, my birth mother was serving a sentence for drug-related crimes. Her story is like the stories of most women and men in prison today, who come from lives impacted by substance abuse. She was a heroin addict doing what addicts do — anything and everything, no matter how far outside the law, to feed the addiction. I lived in prison for a year with my birth mother before the authorities moved me to foster care, where I was eventually adopted. It’s been a long jagged journey to heal from the early trauma of separation from my first source of love. It didn’t matter that the love lived in prison; love is love.

Today, I use my story to serve a larger purpose of giving hope, using myself as an example of turning pain into purpose and healing. I go in as a messenger for what I profoundly believe: “We are all lovable, important, and capable,” I tell the women I meet inside. Heads nod and sometimes I see rows of women sit taller just with that acknowledgment.

I also speak about my belief that it’s possible to live with what we think is unlivable. I’m driven to share this message with as many women in prisons as I’m able to reach.

When I finished my presentation that day, one of the staff members escorted me through security on my way out. Exiting a prison as an invited guest is quicker than getting in. Entering a prison means a security check: turning over car keys, picture identification, backpack, and anything else in your possession, before getting a full-body scan through a metal detector. Even an underwire bra sets off the alarm. Leaving a prison is a walk through metal detection and then picking up belongings. Leaving is just … leaving.

As the staffer and I walked across the compound, I mentioned my personal Kentucky connection — my birth mother, who spent much of her life in prison, had once been sentenced to another facility, the prison in Lexington, Kentucky. Mostly Lexington was a men’s prison but it was also where heroin addicts of both genders from around the country were often sentenced.

My escort was a Kentucky native and she perked up when I shared this connection. She veered us toward the building that housed the prison library, then into her windowless office, the size of a small bathroom, across the hall from the library.

“Hang on,” she said; “wait a second. I have something that might interest you. A piece of history.”

I stood in her doorway facing gray walls and a gray metal desk covered with a pile of manila file folders and books. I didn’t know what I was waiting for, but I was frozen in place and eager. I figured it had something to do with prison and I’m always thrilled to learn about prison life, especially if it might shed light on anything about my birth mother.

“Here,” she said, “you’ll want to see this.”

She pulled out a book about the history of the Lexington prison, which was also classified as a hospital. I scanned the book’s early pages. It was built in the 1930s, a thousand-acre site first called the United States Narcotic Farm. The name later changed to the U.S. Public Health Service Hospital, then to the National Institute of Mental Health Clinical Research Center.

Lexington was the first institution of its kind in the United States, a combined hospital and federal prison. At its peak capacity, it housed 1,500, mostly men. About a third of the population had been convicted of federal charges related to drug use. The Narcotic Farm’s original purpose was to treat people who were admitted “voluntarily” for drug abuse problems. William S. Burroughs wrote about it in his book Junkie, where the autobiographical main character checks in to quit his heroin addiction.

There in the administrator’s tiny office, I read something I wished I hadn’t: During the time of my birth mother’s incarceration, a “bold and ambitious public works project” encouraged prisoners to volunteer as human guinea pigs for drug experiments. These records did not state what the tests entailed. As a reward for participating, subjects were given “generous bonus doses of heroin.”


My birth mother’s prison file describes her as an “incurable and chronic heroin addict.” How is it possible to justify giving addicts more of the poison that’s killing them?__________________________________________________________________

When I read about the Lexington heroin experiments, my throat seized. I ached. “Generous bonus doses”? Although we never met as adults, I’ve read my birth mother’s prison file, which describes her as an “incurable and chronic heroin addict.” A true addict can never be a volunteer, because the force of the addiction will make her or him say yes to anything, just to get a fix. There is no such thing as a generous dose of an addictive drug; in fact, each dose is a nail in the addict’s coffin.

In these experiments at Lexington, researchers have reported, recently recovered addicts — all “volunteers” — were re-addicted, usually to morphine, and then weaned off it while various treatments were tried. Their reward for participation: more morphine. It was all in the name of science. But where was the rationale? What was the outcome?

I don’t know what these experiments were for, and that gap in knowledge adds to the transgression, the cover-up of more wrongdoing. The human subjects probably didn’t know either.

How is it possible to justify giving addicts more of the poison that’s killing them?

The Narcotic Farm’s original purpose was to treat people who were admitted “voluntarily” for drug abuse problems. William S. Burroughs wrote about it.

The brief mention of this drug experiment in which I suspect my mother was a participant is one of those things I wish I could un-read and un-remember. It’s killing me inside to think how the addict in her must have scrambled for her drug, for her lifeline: heroin, her demon, her only comfort. I know this up close and personal because I’m an ex-addict, now clean and sober, and I, too, once used drugs and alcohol to medicate, as an anesthesia to heal pain, sorrow, and confusion. Drugs and alcohol were my daily salvation, and almost my eventual downfall.

I was heroin-exposed at birth, possibly due in part to the Lexington experiment. The prison files say that the court transferred my mother out of Lexington and into the West Virginia facility once they discovered she was pregnant. I’ve added this to the facts I’ve gathered from other members of my birth family who told me that she nursed me in prison when she hadn’t yet detoxed from heroin. The only conclusion I come to is that she participated in the heroin experiment and the prison didn’t want her involved once they learned she was pregnant.

In time, experiments on prisoners at Lexington and elsewhere were made public in a series of Congressional hearings, and the narcotics-treatment program there officially closed down in the 1970s. Nonetheless, aspects of it might have continued at Lexington into the 1980s, just as the practice of shackling pregnant inmates still continues today, although many states have banned it. The prison kept its title as a psychiatric facility until the late 1990s; it still operates today as a federal prison.

And as much as I hope those days of perverted experimentation on prisoners are forever over, history tells us to expect otherwise.

From 1932 to 1972, The U.S. Public Health Service conducted the infamous Tuskegee syphilis experiment to study the natural progression of untreated syphilis. African American men in rural Alabama were told they were receiving free health care from the U.S. government, but in fact, they were human test subjects. Infected or not, they were never informed of their health status.

In the mid-1800s, the physician J. Marion Sims experimented on enslaved African American women to develop a surgical technique for the repair of vesicovaginal fistula, a severe complication of obstructed childbirth. He did not use anesthesia. Today he is regarded as the father of modern gynecology.

Medical experimentation in the concentration camps of Nazi Germany was an excuse for torturing millions of prisoners. The victims were mainly Jews from across Europe, though a handful of disabled non-Jewish Germans, Romani, ethnic Poles, and Soviet POWs. The infamous doctors’ goals were to understand the human anatomy and its response to torture — and to develop effective weaponry, including biological warfare. The experiments resulted in death, disfigurement, and permanent disability. No significant medical knowledge resulted, though worldwide horror at the news of the experiments led to new articulations of medical ethics.

These cases of “progress” in the medical profession made at the expense of vulnerable populations are one reason we enjoy better and more ethical medical care today. But as the Lexington heroin experiment shows, someone can always find a loophole.

Our nation is tarnished with horrific inhumanity, but even so, I continue to believe what I tell the inmates I visit: I remain hopeful for the future. Yes, it is a distressed hope; we can’t live in a la-la land where everything gets better just because we want it to. If we are as a nation getting better, it is on top the bodies who’ve been trampled or withered away with neglect, poverty, race and class disparities, addiction and mental unwellness, and incarceration. It’s time to now recognize and acknowledge those forgotten, with generous doses of compassion.

We’re tied to the stories of our ancestors, and if we’re lucky, we find ways to frame their experiences to create a new and better narrative for ourselves. In some ways I wish I could forget about the Lexington prison experiment, yet I can’t and probably shouldn’t. Sometimes information is a curse and not-knowing a blessing. But we need to embrace that curse if we are to move forward into the future, into our highest best selves.

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Deborah Jiang-Stein is a national speaker and founder of The unPrison Project, a 501(c)3 nonprofit working to empower incarcerated women and girls with life skills and mentoring to prepare for a successful life after prison. Born heroin-addicted to an incarcerated mother, Deborah is the author of the memoir Prison Baby, published by Beacon Press, described as “One woman’s struggles — beginning with her birth in prison — to find self-acceptance, proving that redemption and healing are possible, even from the darkest corners.”

Today, Deborah chronicles the challenges and stigmas that plagued her, all compounded with her multi-racial identity. Her journey of transformation, and the search to overcome adversity, led her to find triumph against great odds. She’s re-framed herself into the positive force she is today: writer, entrepreneur, speaker, and mother. From rebellion to survival, Deborah conveys through her unique perspective, that although progress is not always linear, it is always possible.

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