Our prison industrial complex is plagued with problems so complex it is difficult to figure out where they begin. An extraordinary experiment conducted by a group of social scientists in the early 1970s helps distill it for us.
The Stanford Prison Experiment, led by Philip Zimbardo, began as an undergraduate class study of the psychology of imprisonment. It was designed to differentiate between what people bring into a prison environment from what the prison environment brings out in the people who are there. While not the intention, it demonstrated the fundamental elements of a punitive justice system and its collateral consequences.
For the experiment, a mock prison was set up in the basement of the university's psychology building that simulated a cell block, complete with black steel-barred doors. A solitary confinement cell was set up in a closet.
Out of seventy-five male student applicants, twenty-one were selected to participate who tested as being the most normal and healthy based on a battery of psychological tests. Half of the group was randomly designated to serve as guards. These men were given uniforms and dark glasses, and charged with keeping order in the mock prison.
To heighten the reality of the experiment, Zimbardo arranged for members of the Palo Alto Police Department to simulate arrests and handcuff the experiment's prisoners in their homes, and bring them to the station house. There they were charged with a fictitious crime, fingerprinted, and blindfolded by the police before being taken to the mock prison. Upon arrival, they were stripped by those designated to be guards and given prison uniforms that had a number on the front and back, which would serve as their only identification.
The results were stark. The guards, some of whom had previously considered themselves pacifists, quickly exerted abusive control and imposed severe discipline on the prisoners. For instance, on the first night, the prisoners were awakened at two in the morning and made to do push-ups and other arbitrary tasks.
On the morning of the second day, the prisoners rebelled. They ripped the numbers off their uniforms and barricaded themselves in their cells. The reaction of the guards was to exert greater control. They stripped the prisoners, sprayed them with fire extinguishers, and threw the leader of the rebellion into solitary confinement. One guard described what developed as an atmosphere of terror, which became more abusive and sadistic as the experiment progressed.
Prisoners were made to march down the hallway in handcuffs with paper bags over their heads. The guards demeaned the prisoners and forced them to be abusive to each other. In a few short days, the guards withheld the prisoners' food, denied them bathroom privileges, some prisoners were forced to sleep on the bare floor, and most were punished with nudity and sexual humiliation.
After thirty-six hours, one prisoner became hysterical and had to be released from the project. Four more were released due to extreme depression, crying, rage, and anxiety. Slated to last two weeks, the experiment was terminated after six days.
Zimbardo reported that the scientists had not expected either the intensity of the change in conduct or the speed with which it happened. In this environment of repression, those who believed they had unrestricted control over the others quickly fell into base, less-than-humane conduct. Those being controlled were reduced to coping or survival mode.
Correctional institutions are unique in that the isolation of their closed environment heightens the conforming effect. This was poignantly demonstrated in how rapidly the Stanford Prison Experiment participants, all of whom were mentally healthy male college students, conformed to its anti -social environment.
After the experiment was over, a guard reported having been extremely creative in the forms of mental cruelty he devised, while a prisoner described feeling like he was losing his identity. One prisoner said that his prisoner behavior was often less under his control than he had realized.
There are interesting lessons to be learned from this experiment. The vengeance-seeking that drives a punitive system focuses on control, but it actually makes control difficult to maintain. Turn your back, and control is quickly lost. The corrosive and self-destructive nature of this form of justice only escalates, until it is brought into check by the norms inherent in unitive justice, such as respect, honesty, integrity, and trust.
Some people object that the positive results of unitive justice take too long to produce. They prefer the quick compliance that punishment aims to achieve, not considering the time it takes to repair the further wounding and conflict that comes with it. After conflict erupts, the punishment-and-revenge approach does not restore harmony and balance within the community, and the control needed to constantly enforce compliance consumes many resources.
In contrast, unitive justice supports fundamental, enduring change and costs relatively little. Sometimes the time required to achieve monumental results seems to collapse as transformation occurs with lightning speed. This is actually relatively predictable in the right environment.
More information about the Stanford Prison Experiment is available online at www.prisonexp.org.