An Airway Heights inmate whose testicles were bombarded with radiation is suing two doctors who used him and 64 other Washington state prisoners in a Cold War radiation experiment.
Donald Byers, 60, filed suit Thursday in U.S. District Court in Spokane against C. Alvin Paulsen, a Seattle endocrinologist, and Gimmie D. Losey, a former prison doctor at the Washington State Penitentiary at Walla Walla.
Byers’ experiences in the controversial government-funded experiments were featured in a 1994 Spokesman-Review series.
Byers said he was zapped with 300 rads of radiation - equal to about 300 chest X-rays - in 1967. He said he developed a painful discharge, but could not reach Paulsen for advice.
“We were used, abused and discarded. We deserve some compensation and future peace of mind,” Byers said Thursday.
Paulsen did not return telephone calls to his Seattle office asking for comment. Dr. Losey, contacted at his private practice in College Place, said he didn’t know a lawsuit had been filed.
“I knew Paulsen, but until I see the suit, I’d prefer not to say anything,” Losey said.
A total of 131 inmates at the Washington State Penitentiary and the Oregon State Penitentiary in Salem participated in the 1960s-era experiments.
They agreed to have their testicles bombarded with radiation in exchange for small amounts of cash for cigarettes and coffee.
Byers, who has been in and out of prison since the experiments, is serving the balance of an armed robbery sentence at Airway Heights.
He is the first Washington inmate to sue in federal court. His attorney, Nancy Oreskovich of Spokane, is asking for unspecified damages for invasion of privacy, physical suffering, and emotional distress.
Paulsen showed “an abject disregard for the health and well-being of his subjects, stating that his medical malpractice insurance would cover any litigation resulting from his study and that a follow-up program was not necessary,” according to the lawsuit.
This fall, Byers wrote to Washington State Health Officer Mimi Fields, complaining about the lack of followup for participants in the Paulsen experiments.
Fields responded on Nov. 3.
“I certainly concur that what occurred in the 1950s and ‘60s with radiological experimentation on humans was inexcusable. I, too, am dismayed by those actions,” Fields said.
She asked Byers what Washington state officials could do to address the prisoners’ fears about the long-term health effects from the experiments.
Other prisoner lawsuits have been filed recently.
A team of East Coast law firms filed suit in Eugene last week on behalf of Harold Bibeau, a former Oregon prisoner, and other Oregon participants.
On Dec. 4, attorney William Edelblute of Spokane filed a tort claim against Washington state and the University of Washington on behalf of Melvin “Mike” Briggs, another Washington inmate.
Paulsen was a UW Medical School professor during the prisoner experiments.
Briggs, 55, also transferred to Airway Heights from Walla Walla. The former mental patient is serving a life sentence for strangling a 12-year-old Spokane boy in 1965.
The Atomic Energy Commission paid for the experiments to determine the radiation dose that would make men temporarily sterile in space flight, plutonium factories, nuclear power plants and on the atomic battlefield.
Prisoners were chosen for the radiation tests “because they weren’t going anywhere,” Paulsen said in a 1994 interview.
The identities of the Oregon inmates were made public in 1984, but Paulsen has resisted similar disclosures in Washington. He has maintained for years that the prisoners wanted privacy, not medical followup.
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