It was 46 years ago that psychologist Philp Zimbardo conducted one of the most important social experiments of our time — the Stanford Prison Experiment.
The experiment aimed to study the psychological effects of prison life, and students played the roles of guards and prisoners. Zimbardo structured the experiment to make everything seems as realistic as possible.
The students cast as prisoners and guards were curated from 70 applicants that answered Zimbardo’s ad for test subjects. Those with psychological problems, disabilities, prior records and a history of drug use were excluded. Only 24 met his criteria to take part in the experiment. All were males in the same socio-economic middle class and each was paid $15 a day for their participation. A coin toss decided which volunteers would be jailed and which would be guards.
The experiment started with sudden arrests, with a police car driving through town, nabbing the volunteers. They were searched, handcuffed and taken to Zimbardo’s simulated jail, which consisted of a secure outdoor yard, a small solitary confinement unit and cells. The guards were given uniforms, billy clubs and sunglasses. The prisoners were stripped, searched and deloused before being issued numbered smocks and padlocked ankle chains. Prisoners were not given underwear. Zimbardo and his team recorded the goings-on from behind a wall.
On Day Two, things began to unravel.
The prisoners staged a revolt and barricaded themselves in the cells, taunting and goading the guards. The guards reacted violently. They soaked the prisoners with carbon dioxide from a fire extinguisher. They stripped the prisoners bare, confined the leader of the rebellion and harassed the inmates. A “privilege” cell was designated and the best-behaved prisoners were moved into it, and given better meals than their co-conspirators. Then, the some of the “good” prisoners were yanked from the privilege cell at the discretion of the guards, and the two populations were arbitrarily mixed.
An escape plot was rumored to be buzzing among the prisoners, and when the guards caught wind of it, they planted an informant. The escape turned out to be an unfounded rumor.
By now, tensions were high among both guards and prisoners. The guards’ violence escalated, and prisoners were made to clean toilets with their bare hands and perform jumping jacks and pushups beyond their endurance.
A number of other incidents occurred, including the mental breakdown of at least two volunteers. The experiment was cut short and ended on Day Six, rather than run its full two weeks, because most involved were losing their grip on what was reality, and what was simulated. The prisoners had become pathological and the guards had become sadistic.
Two months later, Prisoner 416, the student that had been in solitary confinement, released this chilling (abridged) statement.
“I don’t regard it as an experiment or a simulation because it was a prison run by psychologists instead of run by the state. I began to feel that that identity, the person that I was that had decided to go to prison was distant from me. I was 416. I was really my number.”
On the Stanford Prison Experiment website, part of Prisoner 416’s statement is contrasted with that of a real inmate from Ohio Penitentiary who had been in solitary confinement for 37 months.
“If I even whispered to the man in the next cell [this] resulted in being beaten by guards, sprayed with chemical mace, black jacked, stomped, and thrown into a strip cell naked to sleep on a concrete floor without bedding, covering, wash basin, or even a toilet. I know that thieves must be punished, and I don’t justify stealing even though I am a thief myself. But now I don’t think I will be a thief when I am released. I am not rehabilitated either. I now only think of killing those who have beaten me and treated me as if I were a dog,” the inmate said.
What did humanity learn from the Stanford Prison Experiment? When you take people from any walk of life and dehumanize them, you get an inhumane result. The “guards” — nice middle class young men in real life —were given identical uniforms and authority that they had no experience with. They transformed into sadists. The prisoners were metaphorically and physically stripped of their basic needs, identity and rights, and turned to rebellion and crime, with several sustaining mental trauma during the process.
The Stanford Prison Experiment was designed to spotlight the real impact of a typical-for-the-time prison situation for both guards and prisoners. What it did was show the world how broken, and how dangerous, the system truly is, and what people are capable of within its structure of power and powerlessness.
Christopher Zoukis is the author of Federal Prison Handbook: The Definitive Guide to Surviving the Federal Bureau of Prisons, College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014) and Prison Education Guide (Prison Legal News Publishing, 2016). He can be found online at ChristopherZoukis.com, PrisonEducation.com and PrisonLawBlog.com.