Quiet Rage: The Stanford Prison Experiment

Review by Hans Sherrer
Prison Legal News, July 9, 2003

The quiet Sunday morning of August 14, 1971, was broken by the wail of sirens as the Palo Alto, California police swept through town arresting nine people. The suspects were handcuffed, read their rights and subjected to the degradation of the booking process after being transported to the Stanford County Prison (SCP). So began the Stanford Prison Experiment (SPE), one of the most important psychology experiments in this country's history.

The brainchild of Stanford University Psychology Professor Philip Zimbardo, the SPE was designed to study how psychologically "normal" people would react to role playing as prisoners and guards while being immersed in a simulated prison environment for two weeks. To do this a mock prison, the SCP, was set-up in the basement of Stanford's psychology building. For realism bars were put on windows, the cells were made of steel bars, there was a "yard" and "chow hall" area, and a windowless "hole." Surveillance cameras allowed Professor Zimbardo and his assistants to monitor the SCP 24 hours a day.

Twenty-four young men were selected to participate from the many candidates subjected to diagnostic interviews and psychological tests designed to weed out abnormal people. Twelve men each were randomly assigned to be a guard or a prisoner. Nine of the prisoners were selected to be housed in three cells, and three guards were to be assigned to each 8-hour shift. The remaining three prisoners and guards were on-call in case they were needed as a replacement. The Palo Alto police department agreed to aid the realism of the SPE by making the surprise arrest of the nine men selected to serve a two week prison term. Once at the SCP the prisoners and guards dutifully played their roles. However, to the amazement of Professor Zimbardo and his assistants, within 24 hours an incredible transformation occurred: the "mock" prisoners became prisoners and the "mock" guards became guards. The SCP had morphed from being an experimental rat-maze into being a prison. Some prisoners became passive while others became rebellious, and the guards that wanted to put in their time on a shift and go home did nothing to stop the guards that reveled in exercising their power over the prisoners. One guard was nicknamed "John Wayne" by the prisoners because he was so sadistic. Yet he was the "nicest" guard on the street, and he only made his transformation from the gentle Dr. Jekyll to the monstrous Mr. Hyde when he put on his guard's uniform.

The guards were given wide latitude in how to treat the prisoners with the caveat they could never strike them. As the days went by the guards as a whole flexed their power by increasing their aggressive, humiliating and dehumanizing tactics against the prisoners. The worst tactics were by the grave yard shift guards - which included "John Wayne." One thing they did that wore on the prisoners was waking them at night to stand for count, instead of doing so while they slept (guards in actual prisons typically try to annoy prisoners during night counts by rattling keys, running keys along cell doors, or shining a flashlight in their face). The prisoners initially tried to resist their dehumanization by engaging in non-violent tactics like a hunger strike, but the guards responded to every threat to their authority with brutal tactics designed to crush the spirit of the prisoners. The prisoners described the SCP as "a real prison run by psychologists instead of run by the state."1

Just like in a real prison, the stress of the situation made some of the prisoner's crack. Within 36 hours one of the prisoners had to be released after he exhibited signs of a nervous breakdown: He began uncontrollably crying, screaming, cursing, and acting irrationally.2 The stress of being in a prison environment caused a general deterioration of the prisoners into pathological behavior, and a prisoner a day had to be released after snapping. Although the men were "mock" prisoners in a "mock" prison, it was psychologically real to them, and that is how they responded. Yet while prisoners were psychologically collapsing from the SCP's effect on them, not a single guard quit or let up on their demeaning tactics.

It is important to keep in mind that the reactions of the SPE's 24 participants weren't because psychos were chosen to be the guards and wimps were chosen to be the prisoners. Whether a person was selected to be a guard or prisoner was purely random. If the choices had been reversed at the experiment's beginning, there is every reason to think the participants would have adjusted their conduct to fit their different role. The SPE indicates a significant influence on a person's behavior in a particular situation is how they perceive their role in it and their emotional responses to that perception.

Kurt Vonnegut's caution in Mother Night (1961) to be careful what you pretend to be because that is what you become was dramatically confirmed by the behavior of the SCP's guards, prisoners and administrators.

An outside observer who saw the SCP for the first time after it had been operating for nearly six days was horrified to see that it had become indistinguishable from a real prison environment. She was able to convince Professor Zimbardo after a prolonged and impassioned argument that as administrators of the "prison" he and his assistants had become blind to the unconscionable activities happening in front of their eyes. The SPE was a "controlled" experiment that had spun out of the control of the educators monitoring it. So after six days the SCP was abruptly shut down and the two-week experiment was terminated.

The SPE has never been repeated by an academic institution in this country. However, it is repeated every day in every jail and prison in the United States, and prisoners across the country daily experience conditions infinitely worse than those that caused the SCP to be shut down for humanitarian reasons after only six days.

The SPE was filmed from beginning to end. Quiet Rage: The Stanford Prison Experiment is the documentary made from that film footage, and it includes commentary by Professor Zimbardo and others involved in the experiment that helps put what happened in perspective. The documentary also includes a remarkable exchange filmed after the experiment between "John Wayne" and one of the prisoners he tormented. The scaring of the "mock" prisoner's psyche by his treatment at the hands of a "mock" guard should serve as an electric shock of a warning to every person with a humanitarian impulse about what is happening to people in this country's prisons every minute of every day.

Quiet Rage graphically demonstrates that exposure to a jail or prison environment for even a few hours is toxic for the human psyche. It is not the conditions of confinement that lead to pathological behavior by prisoners, guards and other staff members, but the confinement itself. Although probably dismissed as an exaggeration by people that have never been jailed, actress Shannon Doherty was nakedly honest when she told an interviewer that she felt like she was going to die while jailed for many hours after being arrested for suspicion of drunk driving. After all, one of the men in the SPE suffered a psychological collapse after being "pretend" arrested and confined to a "fake" jail for 36 hours. There was no pretence in the slapping of cuffs on Ms. Dougherty's wrists nor was there anything fake about the cell she was locked in for hours. A similar psychic scarring experience happens every day to thousands of people all across this country. It should make people think long and hard about the negative effect on society of jailing people for minor offenses, and imprisoning them for an increasing array of petty crimes.

It is made clear in Quiet Rage that if you put "normal" people in a psychologically unhealthy environment like a prison or a jail, they will become infected by their exposure to the diseased situation. Professor Zimbardo is a prime example. In spite of his professional training he was so infected by his involvement as administrator of the SPE that if an outsider hadn't intervened to shake him back to reality, it would have gone on for days longer with perhaps catastrophic consequences - possibly even resulting in the physical injury or death of a prisoner or guard.

Quiet Rage should be seen by everyone unaware of the psychologically crippling effects of imprisonment on both jailers and the jailed. However, the cat was let out of the bag in 1996 that the devastating psychological effects of imprisonment are both known and being ignored by politicians and law enforcement officials. The Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA) enacted in 1996 contains a provision specifically preventing prisoners from suing prison officials for "mental or emotional harm unless they can also prove physical injury."3

As the SPE graphically demonstrated, prisoners are psychologically tortured every day without any identifiable physical mistreatment, and their torturers escape any legal consequences. An example of this torture are the many people imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, driven to despair by the circumstances of their arrest and confinement - although they are unscarred by physical injuries. The attempted and successful suicides by prisoners at Guantanamo Bay have been widely reported internationally. However, there is sparse news coverage about the same thing happening in jails and state, federal and private prisons across the country.

Quiet Rage is the most authentic source available for outsiders to glimpse the pathological reactions caused by exposure of prisoners, guards and administrators to a prison environment. Thus, it is an invaluable tool for civil rights or prison activist groups and faith based or educational organizations to expose large numbers of people to imprisonment's destructive effect on a prisoner's dignity, sense of personal self worth, and how it tends to unleash inhumane impulses in prison staff members. For sure Quiet Rage should be seen by every judge, prosecutor and juror so they can make informed judgments as to whether a person's alleged or actual offense justifies them being sent into the human-made hell of imprisonment, from which they can only be expected to emerge a worse human being.

The raw emotional reactions of the SPE's participants underscore it as one of the most important academic experiments ever conducted into the psychological effects of imprisonment on the caged and their cagers. The SPE's findings should thus be a prime influence on law enforcement policies at the local, state and federal level. Yet they have been ignored by policy makers for the past 32 years. However, that official blindness doesn't detract from Quiet Rage being as relevant today as when "John Wayne" prowled the Stanford County Prison in 1971.

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1 The SPE: What it was, where it came from, and what came out of it," Philip G. Zimbardo, Obedience to Authority: Current Perspectives on the Milgram Paradigm, edited by Thomas Blass, 2000, pp. 201-.

2 Ibid.

3 Criminal Injustice: Confronting the Prison Crisis, edited by Elihu Rosenblatt, South End Press, Boston, 1996, p. 83.

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