A little over a decade ago, in one of my first psychology classes under the tutelage of Dr.Cook at Trinity Valley Community College, I came across the work of Stanford psychologist Dr. Phillip Zimbardo and was literally blown away by how closely Dr. Zimbaro’s had adequately reproduced the conditions of prison life with his Stafford Prison experiment.
This learned man-made be believe in the power of laboratory experiments to reproduce and study the conditions of everyday life and experience. Since first coming across his work more than a decade ago, I have been a huge fan of this great man who had so eloquently provided a voice to, over 2 million voiceless American prisoners scattered around the nation.
Although Dr. Zimbardo’s work is now several decades old I find it as chilling in its accuarcy today as it was when first published.
What follows is a short summary of his work that he prepared for the U.S House of Representatives Committee on the Judiciary: Hearing On Prison Reform
The Psychological Power and Pathology of Imprisonment by Phillip G. Zimbaro:
In an attempt to understand just what it means psychologically to be a prisoner or a prison guard, we created our own prison. We carefully screened over 70 volunteers who answered an ad in the Palo Alto City newspaper and ended up with about two dozen young men who were selected to be part of this study. They were mature, emotionally stable, normal, intelligent college students from middle class homes throughout the United States and Canada. They appeared to represent the “cream of the crop” of this generation. None had any criminal record and all were relatively homogeneous on many dimensions initially.
Half were arbitrarily designated as “prisoners” by a flip of a coin, the others as “guards.” These were the roles they were to play in our simulated prison. The guards were made aware of the potential seriousness and danger of the situation, and their own vulnerability. They made up their own formal rules for maintaining law, order, and respect, and were generally free to improvise new ones during their 8-hour, 3-man shifts. The prisoners were unexpectedly picked up at their homes by a City policeman in a squad car, searched, handcuffed, fingerprinted, booked at the Station House, and taken blindfolded to our jail. There they were stripped, deloused, put into a uniform, given a number, and put into a cell with two other prisoners where they expected to live for the next two weeks. The pay was good ($15 a day) and their motivation was to make money.
We observed and recorded on videotape the events that occurred in the prison, and we interviewed and tested the prisoners and guards at various points throughout the study. These data will be available to the committee in a forthcoming report. Some of the videotapes of the actual encounters between the prisoners and guards can be seen on the NBC news feature Chronolog, November 26, 1971.
In the short time available at this hearing, I can only outline the major results of ‘this experiment, and then briefly relate them to the “experiment” which our society is conducting using involuntary subjects. Finally, I wish to suggest some modest proposals to help make “real” prisons become more successful experiments.
At the end of only six days we had to close down our mock prison because what we saw was frightening. It was no longer apparent to us or most of the subjects where they ended and their roles began. The majority had indeed become “prisoners” or “guards,” no longer able to clearly differentiate between role-playing and self. There were dramatic changes in virtually every aspect of their behavior, thinking and feeling. In less than a week, the experience of imprisonment undid (temporarily) a lifetime of learning; human values were suspended, self-concepts were challenged, and the ugliest, most base, pathological side of human nature surfaced. We were horrified because we saw some boys (“guards”) treat other boys as if they were despicable animals, taking pleasure in cruelty, while other boys (“prisoners”) became servile, dehumanized robots who thought only of escape, of their own individual survival, and of their mounting hatred of the guards.
We had to release three “prisoners” in the first four days because they had such acute situational traumatic reactions as hysterical crying, confusion in thinking, and severe depression. Others begged to be “paroled,” and all but three were willing to forfeit all the money they had earned if they could be “paroled.” By then, the fifth day, they had been so programmed to think of themselves as “prisoners,” that when their request for “parole” was denied, they returned docilely to their cells. Now, had they been thinking as college students acting in an oppressive experiment, they would have quit once they no longer wanted the $15 a day we used as our only incentive. However, the reality was not “quitting an experiment,” but “being paroled by the parole board from the Stanford County Jail.” By the last days, the earlier solidarity among the prisoners (systematically broken by the guards) dissolved into “each man for himself.” Finally, when one of their fellows was put in solitary confinement (a small closet) for refusing to eat, the prisoners were given a choice by one of the guards: give up their blankets and the “incorrigible prisoner” would be let out, or keep their blankets and he would be kept in all night. They voted to keep their blankets and to abandon their brother, a suffering prisoner.
About a third of the guards became tyrannical in their arbitrary use of power, in enjoying their control over other people. They were corrupted by the power of their roles and became quite inventive in their techniques of breaking the spirit of the prisoners and making them feel they were worthless Some of the guards merely did their jobs as “tough but fair” correctional officers. Several were “good guards” from the prisoners’ point of view, since they did them small favors and were friendly. However, no “good guard” or any other one ever interfered with a command by any of the “bad guards”; they never intervened on the side of the prisoners, they never told the others to ease off because it was only an experiment, and they never even came to me as Prison Superintendent or Experimenter in charge to complain. In part, they were “good” because the others were “bad”; they needed the others to help establish their own egos in a positive light. In a sense, they perpetuated the prison more than the other guards because their own needs to be liked prevented them from disobeying or violating the implicit guard’s code. At the same time, the act of befriending the prisoners created a social reality which made the prisoners less likely to rebel.
By the end of the week, the experiment had become a reality, as if it were a Pirandello play directed by Kafka that just keeps going after the audience has left. The Consultant for our prison, Carlo Prescott, an ex-con with 16 years imprisonment in California’s jails, would get so depressed and furious each time he visited our prison, because of its psychological similarity to his experiences, that he would have to leave. A Catholic priest, who was a former prison Chaplain in Washington, D.C., talked to our “prisoners” after four days and said they were just like the “first-timers” he had seen.
But in the end, I called off the experiment not because of the horror I saw out there in the prison yard, but because of the horror of realizing that ^ could have easily traded places with the most brutal guard, or become the weakest prisoner full of hate at being so powerless that I could not eat, sleep or go to the toilet without permission of the authorities’. I. could have become Galley at My Lai, George Jackson at San Quentin, one of the men at Attica, or the prisoner quoted at the beginning of this report. I believe you could too.
Significance of these findings
(1) Individual behavior is largely under the control of social forces and environmental contingencies rather than “personality traits,” “character,” “will power” or other empirically unvalidated constructs. Thus we create an illusion of freedom by attributing more internal control to ourselves, to the individual, than actually exists. We thus underestimate the power and pervasiveness of situational controls over behavior because: (a) they are often non-obvious and subtle, (b) we often can avoid entering situations where we might be so controlled, (c) we label as “weak” or “deviant” people in those situations who do behave differently from how we believe we would.
Each of us carries around in our heads a favorable self-image in which we are essentially just, fair, ‘humane, understanding, etc. For example, we could not imagine inflicting pain on others without much provocation, or hurting people who had done nothing to us, who in fact were even liked by us. However, there is a growing body of social psychological research which underscores the conclusion derived from this prison study. Many people, perhaps the majority, can be made to do almost anything when put into psychologically compelling situations—regardless of their morals, ethics, values, attitudes, beliefs, or personal convictions. My colleague, Stanley Milgram, has shown that more than sixty percent of the population will deliver what they think is a series of painful electric shocks to another person even after the victim cries for mercy, begs them to stop, and then apparently passes out. The subjects complained that they did not want to hurt him more, but blindly obeyed the command of the authority figure (the experimenter) who said that they must go on. In my research on violence, I have seen mild-mannered co-eds repeatedly give “shocks” (which they thought were causing pain) to another girl, a stranger whom they had rated very favorably, simply by being made to feel anonymous and put in a situation where they were expected to engage in this activity.
Observers of these and similar experimental situations never predict their outcomes, and estimate that it is unlikely that they themselves would behave similarly. They can be so confident only when they are outside the situation, but since the majority of people in these studies do act in these “non-rational,” “non-obvious” ways, then it follows, that the majority of observers would also succumb to the social psychological forces in the situation.
(2) With regard to prisons, we can state that the mere act of assigning labels to people, such as “prisoners” and “guards,” and putting them into a situation where those labels acquire validity and meaning, is sufficient to elicit pathological behavior. This pathology is not predictable from any available diagnostic indicators we have in the social sciences, and is extreme enough to modify in very significant ways fundamental attitudes and behavior. The prison situation, as presently arranged, is guaranteed to generate severe enough pathological reactions in both guards and prisoners as to debase their humanity, lower their feelings of self-worth, and make it difficult for them to be part of a society outside of their prison.
General Conclusions and Specific Recommendations for Reform
Prison is any situation in which one person’s freedom and liberty are denied by virtue of the arbitrary power exercised by another person or group. Thus our prisons of concrete and steel are only metaphors for the social prisons we create and maintain through enforced poverty, racism, sexism, and other forms of social injustice. They are also the physical symbol of the psychological prisons we create for others, by making even our loved ones feel inadequate or self-conscious, and, worst of all, the imprisonment we impose on our own minds and actions through neurotic fears.
The need for “prison reform” then is a cry not only to change the operating procedures of our penal institutions, but a more basic plea to change the conditions in our society which make us all prisoners, all less happy, less productive, less free to grow, and less concerned about our brothers than about our own survival.
Our national leaders for years have been pointing to the enemies of freedom, to the fascist or communist threat to the American way of life. In so doing, they have overlooked the threat of social anarchy that is building within our own country without any outside agitation. As soon as a person comes to the realization that he is being “imprisoned” by his society or individuals in it, then, in the best American tradition, he demands liberty and rebels, accepting death as an alternative.
The third alternative, however, is to allow oneself to become a “good prisoner,” docile, cooperative, uncomplaining, conforming in thought and complying in deed. Our prison authorities now point to the “militant agitators” who are still vaguely part of some communist plot, as the irresponsible, “incorrigible” trouble-makers. They imply that there would be no trouble, riots, hostages, or deaths if it weren’t for this small band of “bad prisoners.” In other words, if they could break these men, then everything would return to “normal” again in the life of our nation’s prisons.
The riots in prison are coming from within—from within every man and woman who refuses to let The System turn them into an object, a number, a thing, or a no-thing. It is not communist-inspired, but inspired by the spirit of American freedom. No man wants to be enslaved. To be powerless, to be subject to the arbitrary exercise of power, to not be recognized as a human being is to be a slave.
To be a “militant prisoner” is to become aware that the physical jails are but more blatant extensions of the forms of social and psychological oppression experienced daily in the nation’s ghettos. They are trying to awaken the conscience of the nation to the ways in which the American ideals are being perverted in the name of “justice,” but actually under the banner of apathy, fear, and hatred, if we do not listen to the pleas of the prisoners at Attica to be treated like human beings, then we all have become brutalized by our priorities for property rights over human rights. The consequence will not only be more prison riots, but a loss of all those ideals on which this country was founded.
1) Do not demand simple solutions for the complex problems of crime and law enforcement.
2) Do continue to search for solutions, to question all assumptions regarding the causes of crime, the nature of the criminal, and the function of prisons. Support research which might provide some answers to these issues, and continue to keep the legislature and the public informed about these issues.
3) Put the specific question of prison reform in the broader context of societal reforms and social injustice which may account for why many commit crimes in the first place.
4) Investigate the public’s latent attitudes about punishment and retribution, and then initiate programs to reeducate the public as to the rehabilitative purposes and goals of our correctional institutions.
5) Insist that Judges have a continuing interest in what happens to people they sentence.
6) Help make the public aware that they own the prisons, and that their business is failing. The seventy percent recidivism rate, and the escalation in severity of crimes committed by graduates of our prisons are evidence that current prisons fail to rehabilitate the inmates in any positive way. Rather,
they are breeding grounds for hatred of the establishment, a hatred that makes every citizen a target of violent assault. Prisons are a bad investment for us taxpayers. Until now we have not cared, we have turned over to wardens and prison “authorities” the unpleasant job of keeping people who threaten us out of our sight. Now we are shocked to learn that their management practices have failed to improve the product, and instead they are turning petty thieves into murderers. We must insist upon new management or improved operating procedures.
7) Remove the cloak of secrecy from the prisons. Prisoners claim they are brutalized by the guards, guards say it is a lie. Where is the impartial test of the truth in such a situation? Prison officials have forgotten that they work for us, that they are only public servants whose salaries are paid by our taxes. They act as if it is their prison, like a child with a toy he won’t share. Neither lawyers, judges, the
legislature, nor the public are allowed into prisons to ascertain the truth unless the visit is sanctioned by “authorities” and until all is prepared for their visit. I was shocked to learn that my request to join this committee’s tour of San Quentin and Soledad was refused, as was that of the news media. However, after talking with convicts, it is apparent that such a guided tour would be the same kind an American
general would get in Moscow. Did this committee visit A section of the South Block, the upper floors of the adjustment center, B section, third tier, any floor above the bottom one in the hospital? It is likely they did not, because these are not part of the prison “show rooms” in San Quentin.
8) There should be an ombudsman in every prison, not under the pay or control of the prison authority, responsible only to the courts, state legislature and the public. Such a person could report on violations of constitutional and human rights.
9) Guards must be given better training than they now receive for the difficult job society imposes upon them. To be a prison guard as now constituted is to be put in a situation of constant threat from within the prison, with no social recognition from the society at large. As was shown graphically at Attica, prison guards are also prisoners of the system who can be sacrificed to the demands of the public to be punitive and the needs of politicians to preserve an image. Social scientists and business training personnel should be called upon to design and help carry out this training.
10) In line with this new human relations training, would be changes in the perceived role of the “guards.” They would instead be “teachers” or “counselors” and the “prisoners” would be “trainees.” The reinforcement (bonus, advancement) for such a “teacher” would be contingent upon the “trainees” learning new social and technical skills which will enable them to leave the “training-rehabilitation” center as early as possible, and not: come back.
Positive reinforcement would replace coercion, threats and isolation as means of behavior management. Most prisoners want to return to their community, to be capable of earning a living, to be socially responsible and to be needed by others. Many are in prison not because they don’t have a manual trade, but because of deficits in social training. Prisons should be constituted to provide the opportunity for such people to have positive social experiences, to be responsive to and responsible for others. This could be done by giving them training as psychiatric aides and social workers who must care for other disturbed prisoners. This “peer management” is the best way to build an individual’s sense of self-worth and a feeling of community. In addition, these skills are vitally needed in the communities to which the “trainees” will return. College students and professional social scientists could volunteer their services or be part of a Vista campaign to produce such training.
11) The relationship between the individual (who is sentenced by the courts to such a center) and his community must be maintained. How can a “prisoner” return to a dynamically changing society, that most of us cannot cope with, after being out of it for a number of years? There should be more community involvement in these rehabilitation centers, more ties encouraged and promoted between the trainees and
family and friends, more educational opportunities to prepare them for returning to their communities as more valuable members of it than they were before they left.
12) Once a trainee has finished the prescribed course and is judged ready to leave the institution, there should be no stigma attached to his training, no need to report to prospective employers that he/she was a “prisoner,” no need to be labeled an “ex-con.”
13) Finally, the main ingredient necessary to effect any change at all in prison reform, in the rehabilitation of a single prisoner, or even in the optimal development of your own child, is caring. That is where all reform must start — with people caring about the well-being of others, especially people with power, like those on this committee, really caring about the most hardened, allegedly incorrigible prisoner in solitary confinement. Underneath the toughest, society-hating convict, rebel, or anarchist is a human being who wants his existence to be recognized by his fellows and who wants someone else to care about whether he lives or dies and to be sad if he lives imprisoned rather than lives free.