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Bailey Baptista
Professor Lawson
21 January 2018
The Stanford Prison Experiment
In the summer of 1971, an American psychologist began an experiment in the basement of Stanford University. The experiment pitted twenty-four college age males against each other; twelve taking on the role of prisoner, twelve taking on the role of guard. The physical and psychological abuse that followed led to numerous breakthroughs in the understanding of the power of assigned authority and what lengths people will go to when they believe they are “above” others. The understanding that came from this experiment was able to provide insight into the real-life events that occurred at the prison in Abu Ghraib, Iraq, thirty years after Stanford.
Phillip Zimbardo was a professor of psychology who began teaching at Stanford in 1968. In 1971, he received a grant from U.S. Office of Naval Research and conducted The Stanford Prison Experiment (“The Stanford Prison Experiment”). Zimbardo and his colleagues put out an advertisement offering $15 a day for a two week study. Of the seventy applicants, twenty-four were chosen for the experiment. Their roles were chosen by coin toss, and the twenty-four college age males were separated into two groups: twelve guards, and twelve prisoners. Of each group of twelve, three were kept as alternates to be used in case individuals became unable to continue. Zimbardo addressed consultants to help the experimenters create an accurate setting for the prison population they were building. The bare hallways of the basement of Stanford quickly became a prison yard, and empty laboratories became cells with specially made doors with bars. An accompanying closet in the hall became known as “the hole,” a confined area for unruly prisoners to be put if necessary. There were no windows, and no clocks included in the experiment, and to use the restroom, the prisoners had to be blindfolded and led to the bathroom, so as not to divulge their actual location (“2. Setting Up”). All of this was in effort to disorient the prisoners and to give more power to the guards. The guards were knowledgeable of what day it was, what time it was, as well as the geography of the building that they were in. In addition, the prisoners were only given “dresses” to wear, small sheets with holes for one’s arms and head, and no undergarments. This “exposure” led to more degradation, a polar opposite to the fully clothed, uniformed guards in charge of them. Before even a word of verbal abuse was said to any of the prisoners, or an instance of physical abuse was carried out, the prisoners already felt that they were at a disadvantage. In addition, the prisoners were only referred to by their given numbers, stitched onto their minimal clothing, thus removing any semblance of their past selves. Zimbardo acted as the superintendent of the prison and may brief and few appearances. To the prisoners he was the leader of this operation, someone who possessed the authority over the people who had authority over the prisoners, the “top dog.” This showed the prisoners that there was a larger hierarchy outside of the small area they knew of, giving way to the sense that there was a larger picture and game at play. All of these components built upon each other, taking away more and more power from the prisoners and providing the guards with more and more ways to inflict psychological pain upon their counterparts. All of this, the division of power, the degradation, the advantage of knowledge, came down to a coin toss, but ultimately meant everything in the mens’ lives.
When the experiment originally began, both groups initially responded with hesitation and slight bemusement. The prisoners, after all, had been arrested on a random day, to build upon the suddenness of an actual arrest (Alvarez). They knew they had signed up to be included in a study, but did not know many more details than that. The individuals representing the guards were given nightsticks and instructions on how to conduct themselves and what to demand out of the prisoners. The manipulation was already seeded by Zimbardo and his colleagues, they were not just trying to see what happened to ordinary men when they were degraded and forced into situations they were not supposed to be in, but what happened to ordinary men when they were given direct power over others, and told that the people they were responsible for were “lesser” than them. In the 2015 film, The Stanford Prison Experiment, which was extremely detailed in accounting the real life events that occurred in Stanford’s basement, starting on Day 1, the prisoners already began to fight back, already taking on the roles of individuals that were being controlled by a force they were not compliant with (Alvarez). The state of readiness had an effect on both groups, allowing the guards to act more swiftly because of their assured presence in the “prison,” whereas the prisoners themselves did not know the boundaries to push and the rules consistently changed per the rotation of the guards’ shifts. The outcome of this was the result of exactly what Zimbardo asked out of the guards, “to create an atmosphere in which the prisoners felt “powerless”” (Ratnesar). Once the prisoners felt powerless, they either fell in line, submissive, of they fought back. One group went as far as attempting to escape the prison. The language that was used in the prison was hypocritical. The guards would use expletives as well as offensive and demeaning profanities towards the prisoners, but demand that no such language should be heard from the prisoners themselves, unless they wanted to be punished. In the 2015 film, there was background information given into what the prisoners and guards did around the clock. When the guards would switch shifts, the exiting guards would communicate, crack jokes, and leave instructions for the incoming guards to follow up on. This built rapport between them, forming a brotherhood that it was very much “us against them.” The divisive ideology was also being formed on the other side of the “cell walls,” as the prisoners would fight back, but would usually back down with eventual fear of further punishment. They were not aware of further punishment, nor were there going to be actual lasting repercussions, and yet the prisoners still obeyed anyway, no matter what they guards commanded them to do. Society is built upon many tropes, of which we are told to adhere to on a daily basis; follow the law, abide by the rules, listen to authority figures. Just putting someone in a uniform and handing them a nightstick and telling them they are in control of a group of individuals is enough to make them believe they can do whatever they want. The distribution of power according to a hierarchy quickly gave way as the guards began to formulate plans to break up riots amongst the prisoners without prior instruction from Zimbardo and the other psychologists (Shuttleworth). The ownership of authority was enough to make the guards actually believe that they were legitimate prison guards, responsible for legitimate prisoners, and had to go to various attempts to disperse them. However, the guards did not just stop there, they began to inflict harsher punishments, such as taking away the prisoners’ mattresses, and refusing to let the prisoners use the facilities for their basic needs. The guards went above and beyond what was being required of them and their instructions based on their complexes of power. As a result, the guards’s actions led to more rebellions and greater resistance from the prisoners as they believed what was being done to them was unfair and unjust, rightly so, as all parties involved were being manipulated by the falsehood of power or lack thereof.
Early into 2004, images and accounts of abuse came pouring in from a detention center in Abu Ghraib, located just outside of Baghdad. Six U.S. soldiers were charged with abuse in an investigation into what happened in Iraq (“Iraq prison ‘abuse’ sparks outrage”). After the U.S. Military became stationed in the Middle East, many soldiers were sent to detention centers to aid the local government. The Abu Ghraib center in particular had as many as 3,800 detainees and the controversy began when one individual died during an interrogation (“Iraq Prison Abuse Scandal Fast Facts”). A The New Yorker article from 2004 cites some of the wrongdoing that occurred at Abu Ghraib as, “breaking chemical lights … pouring the phosphoric liquid on detainees … beating detainees with a broom handle and a chair … sodomizing a detainee with a chemical light and perhaps a broom stick, and using military working dogs to frighten and intimidate detainees with threats of attack, and in one instance actually biting a detainee,” all of which were carried out by American soldiers put into power at the detention center (Hersh). This all results from the group identity from both sides, just as it did during Zimbardo’s Stanford Experiment. The U.S. soldiers were in the Middle East because of the events concerning 9/11, so their view of Middle Eastern was extremely negative and based on derogatory facts. The detainees however knew only of the “American” soldiers as how they were visualized from their cultural points of view. This was more sociopolitical than the Stanford Experiment since both the groups in that case were college aged males of similar backgrounds. The added factor of coming from varying countries with language barriers, different cultural norms, and various differences between the people themselves builds upon the already steadfast authoritative hierarchy. Compared to the Stanford Experiment, the controversy at Abu Ghraib exploits a greater problem, of actual elected officials acting out of line and abusing their power, power that should be in check, considering the “guards” in this event were military soldiers.
Reflecting back on a time of authority, I participated as a camp counselor for a group of nine year old boys. The group was coming from my church so we all had a religious background and so the sense of moral right or wrong was more heightened than I would assume would be prevalent at a non-religious affiliated camp. There, I was in charge of the boys for Sunday through Friday, both days and nights. I did not immediately realize any change in my behavior until the end of the trip, where I realized I had become much more attached to the kids than I had anticipated. By the time the parents had arrived to pick up their kids, I had also been able to get the kids to partake in regulatory activities such as showering and brushing their teeth, eating actual vegetables in their meals, and being respectful of each other in the day-to-day. When they had started off the week they were extremely rambunctious and unlikely to take care of themselves since they viewed the time at camp as time away from their parents. I had every reason to punish them for not following the rules not only provided from the camp but also my own moral compass for a group of nine year olds, but resisted and decided to merely talk to them about their actions and what it meant to the other kids around them. By the end of camp, I not only felt like I had become a better teacher but that the kids had also become more independent and respectful of the kids around them.
In conclusion, I did not turn to the abuse that the guards in the Stanford Experiment or the soldiers in Abu Ghraib, but instead turned to more meaningful methods of distributing discipline and connecting with the kids in a way I knew they would understand and still view me as their camp counselor, and not just another authoritative figure.

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