In 1971, psychology professor Philip Zimbardo conducted an experiment in which Stanford students played the roles of prisoners and guards in a simulated prison in redecorated labs and a boarded-up corridor of the Psychology Department. They were all healthy male students who’d passed psychological tests and given informed consent about the deprivations they might experience. A coin flip determined who would be guards (there were 3 shifts) and who prisoners. The prisoners were arrested by seemingly real police and taken in squad cars from their homes to the “prison.” In a humiliating induction procedure modeled on real prison procedures, they were stripped, deloused, searched and given ID numbers. For a surreal touch supposed to quickly reproduce the emotional experience of imprisonment, the young men were issued prison uniforms consisting of smocks, ankle chains, and caps made from nylon stockings. The guards were free to make up rules, and also required to follow certain procedures, such as awakening prisoners for “counts” during the night.
In a short time, the guards began administering punishments (such as push-ups) and the prisoners rebelled (as by barricading themselves in their cells). When their shift changed, the guards called for reinforcements, overwhelmed the prisoners, and administered more severe and humiliating punishments to ringleaders and meted out special privileges to those they hoped would be more compliant. The guards used mind-games to pit prisoners against each other, and their control over every aspect of prisoners’ lives quickly escalated until even going to the toilet became a privilege. In a short time, even Zimbardo and his fellow academics got caught up in the experiment, forgetting their roles as researchers in favor of reacting punitively to rumors of a planned prison break. By the 4th or 5th day, everyone had submitted utterly to “reality” of the prison, with prisoners mostly passive and submissive and fully a third of the guards inflicting more and more serious humiliations and taking sadistic delight in doing so. The study had been planned for two weeks, but on the 6th day, the experiment was ended when it was discovered that guards had administered extremely degrading and pornographic abuse when they thought no one was looking, and when a new participant expressed sufficient outrage to awaken the experimenters to their own complicity in the abuse.
I heard Zimbardo interviewed on the radio. He said boredom was a key factor– with nothing to do but wait out a sentence (the prisoners) or watch time pass (the guards), the chief reality, the power differential between prisoners and guards, became the controlling dynamic. In less than a week, the behavior of “normal” young men became monstrous and sadistic.
Prison is America’s growth industry right now. Our tax dollars are being spent in increasingly large amounts to finance the repetition of this experiment at home, and now, abroad. Our form of punishment breeds the behavior we saw at Abu Ghraib Prison in Iraq–always, inevitably. There’s a word for continuing a behavior after its destructiveness has become crystal-clear: addiction. When will we be ready to kick?