Stanford Prison Experiment

The Stanford Prison Experiment was conducted between August 14-20 in 1971. It was basically a social psychology study, the purpose of which was to understand the struggle between prisoners and prison officers. The study was conducted by Professor Philip Zimbardo at Stanford University, who involved students in the process. The students were asked to either become prisoners or prison guards by the flip of a coin. The professor himself decided to play the role of the superintendent.

The experiment took such a toll on the participants that several prisoners had left the experiment, which only lasted six days. The study found that as soon as the students accepted their roles, the prison guards started putting psychological pressure on the prisoners and would even shame the guards who rejected it. Therefore, they were also forced to take part in torturing the inmates. However, this was the only side of the story. Let us take a more detailed look into it.

Purpose of the Study

The burden of fatal police violence and brutality amongst the guards in prisons is an urgent public health crisis in the USA. Mounting evidence shows that deaths at the hands of the police disproportionately impact people of certain races and ethnicities, pointing to systemic racism in policing. According to Michele Akemi McKenzie, police misconduct attorney in San Diego, “Over the last 23 years, police in Los Angeles County have killed about four people each month. The number has varied but remains relatively steady, averaging roughly 42 people per year.”

The purpose of the study according to Professor Zimbardo was to understand and determine whether the brutality reported amongst guards in American prisons was due to their sadistic personalities or simply the prison environment. What this means is that the study intended to find out whether the inmates were always disrespecting law and order or the officers usually being aggressive and dominating.

This might also be due to the type of social environment in prison. Guards may be forced to react in a hostile way even if they do not prefer to. As a result, the guards were pushed to act in a way that was not according to their actual personality.

Procedure of the Experiment

To better understand the roles people tend to play in prisons, Professor Zimbardo took over the basement of Stanford University, which belonged to the department of psychology and converted into a mock prison. He then advertised the study/experiment and asked for volunteers to take part.

The purpose was to study the psychological effects of prisons. In total, 75 applicants applied to participate, and before the subjects were given diagnostic interviews and personality tests to determine if they experienced any medical, psychological, or drug and crime-related problems.

Furthermore, 24 individuals who were the most mentally stable and fit were selected amongst the applicants. The selected individuals did not know each other and were also selected based on their anti-social behaviors. They were paid $15 each for the study.

The participants were asked to take on the roles of either as prisoners or prison guards. The idea was to stimulate prison environments as perfectly as possible. In total, there were 10 prisoners and 11 guards.

The prisoners were treated the same as they are usually treated. Picked up from their homes without being informed and brought into the local police stations where they are photographed, fingerprinted, and booked. Then, the participants were blindfolded and taken into the basement, which was now a prison consisting of cells, bare walls, and barred doors and windows. This was the beginning of the experiment.

As soon as the prisoners arrived, they were stripped naked. All the personal belongings were taken away as well and given prison clothes and bedding. From this point onwards, the prisoners were only called by their numbers. The purpose of using the ID numbers was to keep the prisoners anonymous. This way they would not be able to identify each other. Furthermore, the guards were allowed to do as they please to maintain law and order but physical violence was not allowed.

Asserting Authority

As the experiment began, within hours, the guards started to harass the prisoners. They were woken up several times during their sleep. For instance, they were woken up at 2:30 AM by blasting whistles. This was what was known as ‘counts’. Counts served as a technique to familiarize the inmates with their ID numbers. Moreover, the guards were occasionally also given the power to exercise their control over the inmates.

On the other hand, the prisoners started feeling like actual prisoners too. They were respecting the law and order of the prison and accepted the fact that any infringement would create a disaster for them. As a result, some prisoners even started reporting other prisoners who were not obeying the rules to the guards.

Physical Punishment

Prisoners were both physically and mentally tortured. They were given petty and boring tasks to complete and dehumanized. Furthermore, the guards would call them by silly names and even given pointless tasks just to prove them inferior.

Pushups were one of the ways to physically abuse the prisoners. Most often, the guards would stand on their backs or order fellow-prisoners to sit on their backs while they were performing pushups.

Asserting Independence

The first day of the experiment passed without any problems. The guards were amazed by the fact the prisoners had obeyed the orders effortlessly. But they were not prepared for what was about to come ahead.

The second day of the experiment gave birth to a rebellion, which saw the inmates removing their numbers and stocking caps. Moreover, the inmates barricaded themselves inside by putting their bedding against the doors.

As a result, reinforcements were called and carbon dioxide was thrown inside the cells to push the inmates away from the door. The guards then entered the cells, stripped the inmates naked, and began to harass them.

Rebellion Consequences

Over the next few days, the relationship between guards and inmates changed. One change led to another. The guards continuously made the inmates remember that they were in control. Therefore, the inmates would find ways to please the guards and as a result, the guards would demand even more respect, which made them derisive towards them. With time, the prisoners become more submissive.

Prisoner #8612

The experiment was 36 hours into the process when prisoner #8612 started showing signs of acute emotional disturbance.

After a meeting with the guards, he was told that he could not quit and would not be allowed to leave. As soon as the prisoner was put back into his cell, he went crazy. He completely became out of control and it was this point when the psychologists determined that it would be better to let him out.

Prisoner #819 & Catholic Priest

Professor Zimbardo invited a Catholic Priest to judge the prison situation. Inmates were given a chance to speak to the priest and half of them introduced themselves by their numbers instead of names.

Prisoner #819 upon talking to the priest broke down and started crying uncontrollably. Meanwhile, other prisoners started chanting against the prisoner while he was asked to return to a room. The psychologists tried to pursue him to leave the experiment but failed because he thought that others had labeled him a bad prisoner.

Final Word

Initially, Professor Zimbardo had planned the experiment for two weeks but had to terminate it due to extreme physical distress caused to the inmates. Both guards and inmates showed signs of sadistic behavior post-experiment. Christina Maslach, a recent Ph.D was the only one at the time to question the mortality of the experiment. The study found out that there were two sides to the story.

First, the guards were too aggressive and the prisoners became too submissive. The acts of the guards induced severe physical and mental torture, which led to the prisoners becoming weak. This reminisced exactly what happens in prisons around the world and needs to be seriously considered if prisons are to convert inmates into law-abiding citizens.