Male college students needed for
psychological study of prison
life. $15 per day for 1-2 weeks
beginning Aug. 14. For further
information & applications,
come to Room 248, Jordan
Hall, Stanford U.[i]
—Palo Alto Times, 1971
~ ~ ~
Monday 16 August 1971
A baton smashed along the metal bars as the shrill whistle died away.
“Back off! Back away from the doors. Now!” The blonde guard known as ‘John Wayne’ roared from behind his aviators, his athletic shoulders and arms flexing automatically as he clutched his baton tighter, furious at the prisoners’ insubordinance. The prisoners stood their ground behind their homemade bed barricade that pressed against the cell bars. They boldly faced the corridor, or ‘the yard’, as the prisoners called it.
“Where do you want us?” came a guard’s voice as more of them poured into the dimly lit corridor lined with vertical metal bars. One of the original guards grabbed a fire extinguisher off the blank white wall and charged toward the steel bars of the third cell door. Carbon dioxide shot between the bars, smashing men in the mouth, the eyes, the chest.
Coughing. Lungs gasping for air. Screams. “Let us out!” The men in the cells stumbled back, pawing at their noses and eyes, spitting wet, white powder forcefully.
It wasn’t until the first guard took three steps back to take a run up that one of the prisoners realised. “Look out!” he screamed. The guard came smashing through the cell door, as other guards caught on and started to do the same. The rebellious prisoners’ wet smocks were ripped off. They were left, shivering and vulnerable, hands rushing to cover their genitals.
“Is that all you’ve got?” one of the guards sneered, pointing down at an anonymous prisoner. Several of the naked men were crying.
“Try harder next time!” another began to yell, but was soon silenced.
“#5401, #819, #416.” Guard Vandy yelled out the numbers of the ringleaders. “Into the hole!”
The selected numbers were prodded one by one into the small cupboard on the other side of the windowless corridor and Guard Vandy leaned against the door until he heard it click, ignoring the sounds coming from within. On the wall was a sign saying Stanford County Prison. Vandy winced.
~ ~ ~
“We can assume that most people, most of the time, are moral creatures. But imagine that this morality is like a gearshift that at times gets put into neutral. When that happens, morality is disengaged.”[ii]
– Dr Philip G. Zimbardo
~ ~ ~
Sunday 15 August 1971
Clay Ramsay answers a knock at the door, still in his pyjamas. Rubbing sleep from his eyes, he pauses. A police badge flashes in the morning sunlight.
“Sir, you’re under arrest.”
Clay’s right hand goes slack, slapping against his thigh. “What have I done?”
“Sorry,” the policeman on the porch drones, “but you are suspected of Penal Code violation number 459, burglary[iii] and I have to take you downtown.”
The officer grabs the bewildered young man’s upper arm, pinching the blonde hairs, and marches him toward a waiting car. He is spread-eagled across the car, his head slammed a little too hard against the roof.
“You have the right to remain silent, you have . . .”
The officer pats the young man down from behind and then click, click. The cuffs are tightened to just beyond comfortable.
Surprised and curious neighbours look on.
~ ~ ~
“I was guilty of the sin of omission—the evil of inaction . . . the findings came at the expense of human suffering. I am sorry for that and to this day apologize for contributing to this inhumanity.”[iv]
– Dr Philip G. Zimbardo
~ ~ ~
Wednesday 18 August 1971
“Prisoner #819 is a bad prisoner. Because of what Prisoner #819 did, my cell is a mess, Mr. Correctional Officer.”
The other prisoners form an obedient line in front of the cell doors, hands hanging defunct at their sides. Guard Hellmann paces up and down before them, shoes squeaking on the industrial grey linoleum, while Vandy and Ceros stand impassive behind dark, reflective glasses. Guard Landry sits on a rectangular wooden table behind the other two, watching intently. His legs swing slightly as he fiddles with the whistle slung around his neck.
“Prisoner #819 is a bad prisoner . . .”
Some of them wear white lengths of cloth wrapped around their heads, tied like bandanas. Others just wear the mandatory stocking cap made from a woman’s nylon stocking. The psychologists aren’t allowed to shave their heads. On their feet are rubber clogs.[v]
“. . . Because of what Prisoner #819 did, my cell is a mess . . .”
The prisoner second to the end rattles the chain on his right ankle to the rhythm of the chanting. The number #4325 is sewn onto the chest and back of his smock.
“. . . Mr. Correctional Officer!”
He twists the side of his thin, white gown into a scrunched ball, the skin over his fist tightening. Twist. Untwist. Prisoner #819 is a bad prisoner. If it wasn’t for him, their cells wouldn’t be a mess. Mr. Correctional Officer is right. The prisoner’s chests heave as they shout out the chant with vacant eyes. Their unanimous voice doesn’t even have a malicious edge, beneath the monotony. They stand, facing the guards, but staring at the blank wall; hopeless, just like Prisoner #819.
Frantic footsteps are heard as the superintendent races toward the right end of the corridor. A cell door opens. Uncontrollable sobbing. Indistinct conversation.
Prisoner #819 is a bad prisoner.
The doctor ripped open the door to the ‘holding room’ (really just a cleared out office in the psychology department’s basement) and threw himself into the room, pressing the door closed with his back. “#819! Are you okay?” He approached the bereft boy, perched on the edge of the bed. #819 sat slumped over his knees, his knuckles grazing the shiny floor that reeked of industrial strength bleach. He didn’t look at the superintendent. The only movement was the shaking of his shoulders as he sobbed hysterically.
“Let’s get out of here, alright?”
“No!” he whipped his head back to look at Zimbardo through matted brown hair with wild hazel eyes, the eyes of an animal poised under a 12-guage shotgun.
“Why not?” Zimbardo asked.
Between sobs he said, “I can’t. The others think I’m a bad prisoner.”
“Aren’t you feeling sick, though?” the doctor asked gently.
#819 nodded. “But I gotta go back and prove that I’m not a bad prisoner.” He still rasped even though his breathing was slowing.
The superintendent took a few slow steps toward him and squatted down so he could look into #819’s face. “Listen, you are not #819. You are Stewart, and my name is Dr Zimbardo. I am a psychologist, not a prison superintendent, and this is not a real prison. This is just an experiment, and those are students, not prisoners, just like you. Let’s go.”[vi]
~ ~ ~
On Sunday 15th of August, the randomly selected prisoners in Zimbardo’s experiment were rounded up by real policemen and driven in a real police car to the Palo Alto station where they had their fingers stained with dark ink as they were formally booked for their allocated crime. They hadn’t been told exactly when the experiment would begin, or what it would specifically entail. $15 in 1971 could buy you $88.09[vii] worth of beers or cigarettes or good times in today’s economy, and participating in a two week experiment over the summer would surely be the easiest $1,233.26 a young college guy could make. Blinded by an overly starched piece of cloth tied at the nape of their neck, each detainee sat in separate cells, confused and disorientated, while their soon-to-be guards donned khaki uniforms and got used to the cold feel of a billy club in their hand, preparing to maintain discipline.
~ ~ ~
Saturday 14 August 1971
Dave Burdan sat in a blank, white room trying to comprehend what he’d gotten himself into. Eleven other normal-looking guys surrounded him, each as silent as the next. No psychological problems, medical disabilities, or histories of crime or drug abuse here.[viii] No, sir. He knew that for a fact because of the rigorous psychological tests he himself had undergone to get to this room. Dr Zimbardo, the experiment’s leading psychologist/prison superintendent had just been explaining how the shifts would work. Zimbardo told them they wouldn’t be allowed to touch the prisoners.
“You can create in the prisoners feelings of boredom, a sense of fear to some degree, you can and they’ll have no privacy . . . We’re going to take away their individuality in various ways. In general what all this leads to is a sense of powerlessness. That is, in this situation we’ll have all the power and they’ll have none.”[ix] Dr Zimbardo abruptly left the room. Is that all the information they were getting? No, surely he’d be back to finish the briefing.
One thing he’d ask as soon as the doctor returned was whether they were allowed to quit the experiment.
~ ~ ~
At the end of 2012, about 1.35 million people experienced life in a United States prison, 217,800 in federal prison and 744,500 in local jails.[x] One of the aims of the Stanford Prison Experiment was to discover ways to improve prison life by observing how being placed in a role can affect behaviour. Dr Zimbardo was possibly a case in point as he assumed his role of superintendent so well that he seems to have forgotten his aim, as well as to an extent, his identity. If experiments lose sight of their goals, physical and emotional strain on the participants also lose purpose, and discipline can easily become cruelty.
Torture is used in prisons all over the world and is categorised as either black (physical) or white (psychological). Mock execution, for example, like water boarding, is listed as the most prevalent form of torture in prisons and war situations.[xi] Dr Schien says that isolation and . . . psychological disorientation . . . have a significantly negative effect on the human psyche.[xii]
The US-run prison in Guantánamo Bay has a room they call ‘the disco’ where they employ music torture as a way to crack their inmates. Binyan Mohamed encountered ‘the disco’ as a prisoner and said that “he could anticipate physical pain . . . but the experience of slipping into madness as a result of torture by music was something quite different.”[xiii] Around the same time as the Stanford Prison Experiment, the Irish Republican Army were using excruciating loud noises as a method of psychological torture, described by the prisoners as the worst part of their imprisonment.[xiv]
In the basement of the Stanford psychology department, similar psychology tactics are also being used, but as a method to control prisoners, rather than to extract information. One of the guards suggests using psychological tactics, seeing as one of the few things they’ve been instructed is that they cannot use physical force against the prisoners. ‘Good’ prisoners—the ones who have done their dishes and chores well[xv]—are placed in privilege cells. They are given back their clothes, taken away in the rebellion this morning, and put in front of the ‘bad’ prisoners to eat special meals. The guards, without being instructed, take it one step further. In an effort to disorientate and break camaraderie among the prisoners, they mix the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ prisoners around. In the same way that racism is used to create conflict in real prisons, this tactic succeeds in creating suspicion and distrust in the experiment’s prisoners.[xvi]
The prisoners will soon be made to clean toilets with their bare hands and be denied emptying their cell’s bucket in the mornings. The constructed prison will soon begin to smell like human waste and sweat. Woken up in the middle of the night, they will be forced to play out sexual scenarios with each other at the whim of the guards.[xvii]
~ ~ ~
The independent variable (n.)
“The independent variable, also known as the manipulated variable, lies at the heart of any quantitative experimental design.”
– Martin Shuttleworth[xviii]
One of the guards, John Mark, had already had a brush with the law before the experiment began, barely escaping incarceration. Only months before the experiment, he was returning to his exchange university in France from spending Thanksgiving in Amsterdam when he was held up at the French border for possession of marijuana. Eventually he was released from custody with no further charges, but the experience impacted him and led to his decision to volunteer for the experiment. Mark mentions that it was “very disappointing to be assigned to be a guard”[xix] but that he made the best of the situation.
Dr Zimbardo enlisted the help of several ex-convicts to make the constructed prison feel real, but various modifications had to be made, like the chain around the ankle (not used in real life prisons anymore) to serve as a constant reminder of how trapped and powerless they were.
Mark says that “Zimbardo went out of his way to create tension”[xx] among the participants and thinks that Zimbardo never intended for the experiment to run the full two weeks[xxi]; that he had just told the volunteers that to “create a dramatic crescendo”[xxii] that would increase the strain and feelings of claustrophobia and hopelessness in all the young men involved. Mark suspects Zimbardo of manipulating the experiment in order to produce the result that he wanted, and had already decided on. As a result, Mark is hesitant to agree with Zimbardo’s conclusion that “people from middle-class backgrounds—people will turn on each other just because they’re given a role and given power.”[xxiii]
~ ~ ~
Tuesday 17 August 1971
Philip Zimbardo sat with the back of his chair pressed tightly to the wall, looking from side to side. As his eyes raced across the stark walls of the disassembled prison, he listened for any sign of glass breaking, a door opening, a drill. Sweat was gathering underneath his snug collar even though he knew the warm August air wouldn’t reach all the way down to the basement. Suddenly he felt like the entire weight of Stanford was pressing down on his shoulders like the gnarled hands of a burly farmer. He thought of the students about twelve feet above his head who were probably still rambling across the grass quad at this late hour, at least one of them tipsy. The muffled bass throbbing reliably out of the frat houses in big, lazy sound waves, hitting just the wrong nerve. A guy cat-calling a group of girls from a third storey window as they pass under a tree. A pigeon landing on a street lamp. The doctor’s feet stayed firmly planted on the ground, despite the usual temptation of the wheelie chair.
Footsteps sounded on the stairs leading down to the basement. He shot up from his chair. It bounced against the wall and then hit the back of his knees, almost buckling them. The doctor trained his eyes on the door and waited. He slid his sweaty palms up and down his thighs, smoothing his black suit pants.
“Who’s there?” the superintendent whispered roughly. “Don’t come any closer; I’ve got a weapon!” he hissed, even though it wasn’t true. He flexed his empty hands. The doctor cleared his throat, unsure why he’d been whispering, and spoke at a normal volume. “Prisoner #8612? Identify yourself!” He waited.
“Phil?” The door to the stairs opened and a man stepped into view. His hands were up. Gordon Bower, Zimbardo’s college roommate, stood there, legs apart warily, waiting for the superintendent to move. “What’s going on? I just came to see how . . .”
“Gordon?” The doctor must have been a sight, because Gordon’s hands were still up. Zimbardo shook himself and said, “It’s okay. Put your hands down.”
“I came to see how the experiment was going, but are you alright?”
“The prison . . . it’s a mess. We had to call in extra guards.”
Gordon took a step forward, still wary, as he assessed the corridor. “Seems okay. Say, what’s the independent variable in this study?”
“The independent variable?” The superintendent’s face contorted with rage. “The security of my men and the stability of my prison are at stake and you want to know about the independent variable!?”
~ ~ ~
“I began to feel that I was losing my identity, that the person that I called Clay, the person who put me in this place, the person who volunteered to go into this prison—because it was a prison to me; it still is a prison to me. I don’t regard it as an experiment or a simulation because it was a prison run by psychologists instead of run by the state. I began to feel that that identity, the person that I was that had decided to go to prison was distant from me—was remote until finally I wasn’t that, I was 416. I was really my number.”[xxiv]
– Clay Ramsay
~ ~ ~
Monday 16 August 1971
A high-pitched whistle shatters each man’s dream. Only an hour or two after lights out, they scramble blearily to their feet, quick to obey. They’ve seen what happens when they don’t. Scurrying to form a line in front of the guards, #8612 stumbles slightly.
“Faster, dogs!” Their chains rattle. ‘John Wayne’ makes a guttural sound in his throat and shoots a stream of sour tasting spit that lands on a prisoner’s collarbone, dripping slowly down. They stand staring straight ahead, humiliated and buck naked beneath their white smocks. They are holding themselves differently than yesterday; the shoulders more tense, the back less straight. #7258 stands with his hip protruding in an oddly feminine way, Guard Ceros notes with relish.
“Head count! #8612?”
“Present, Mr. Correctional Officer!”
The count is soon complete.
“What are we going to do tonight, girls?” ‘John Wayne’ sneers.
“Seeing as they liked the push ups so much last night . . .” Vandy suggests with a smile. He orders #5486 out of the push up position and points at #8612. “Sit on his back. Yeah, I saw you stumble, #8612.”
~ ~ ~
“It was simply wrong. Boys were suffering. They were not prisoners, not experimental subjects, but boys, young men, who were being dehumanized and humiliated by other boys who had lost their moral compass in the situation.”[xxv]
– Christina Maslach, psychologist involved in experiment
~ ~ ~
On Tuesday, three days before the experiment was prematurely terminated, the scientists staged the biggest deception of all: visiting day. They cleaned the prisoners up, allowing them to shower and shave, and removed the smell of urine from the prison. An attractive young woman, Susie Phillips, posed as a receptionist and welcomed parents and friends. Zimbardo and his researchers, afraid of parents pulling their children out of the experiment, carefully manipulated the environment, encouraging visitors to view the whole ordeal as a novel, fun experience.[xxvi] Despite some concerns about the state their sons appeared to be in, most parents bought into the charade, surprising the researchers.
~ ~ ~
Dear Superintendent Zimbardo,
My husband and I visited our son at the “Stanford County Prison.” It seemed very real to me. I had not expected anything so severe nor had my son when he volunteered I am sure. It gave me a depressed feeling when I saw him. He looked very haggard, and his chief complaint seemed to be that he had not seen the sun for so long. I asked if he was sorry he volunteered and he answered that at first he had been. However, he had gone through several different moods and he was more resigned. This will be the hardest money he will ever earn in his life, I am sure.
Mother of 1037
PS: We hope this project is a big success.[xxvii]
Clark, J, Atteberry, J 1998-2014, ‘What are the 10 most prevalent forms of torture and why?’, How Stuff Works, retrieved 22 September 2014, <http://science.howstuffworks.com/five-forms-of-torture.htm>.
This web page helped me establish a difference between types of torture and infuse an understanding into my piece of the prevalence of psychological torture in the prison system.
Croomer, J 2014, ‘Prisoners, prison guards and power perversion’, 21 March, Office Politics, Rolling Alpha, retrieved 16 September 2014, < http://www.rollingalpha.com/2014/03/21/office-politics-prisoners-prison-guards-and-power-perversion/>.
This web page gave me a photograph of the original advertisement calling volunteers for the experiment so that I was able to include it in my piece verbatim, adding a crucial element of explanation and non-fiction.
Quiet Rage: The Stanford Prison Experiment 2004, video recording, Ken Musen and Stanford Instructional Television Network, Stanford.
This documentary was an integral part of my research, invaluable in giving me a true feel for what it was like for the prisoners and guards, including the accents of the participants as well as what the prison looked like. The only way it was disappointing was the fact that it repeated a lot of the information in Stanford Prison Experiment website, created by Dr Zimbardo (and listed below).
Ratnesar, R 2011, ‘The Menace Within’, Stanford Alumni, July/August, retrieved 16 September 2014, <https://alumni.stanford.edu/get/page/magazine/article/?article_id=40741>.
This online article gave me my angle, which is that scientists can often manipulate experiments to produce the result the want and have already decided on. This source also inspired my title ‘The Independent Variable’ so I could draw attention to my main focus, the fact that it was a controlled environment, despite how the prisoners and guards felt. This gave me the background of a particular guard, John Mark, who was also suspicious of Dr Zimbardo and his team of researchers.
Sherrer, H 1999, ‘Cheaper than lab rats, part II’, Prison Legal News, vol. 10, no. 4, pp. 1-3, retrieved 22 September 2014, <http://www.forejustice.org/write/mental_torture_of_american_prisoners.htm>.
This source gave me a professional’s perspective on the effect of psychological torture on a victim’s mind, pointing out just how unethical Dr Zimbardo’s experiment was, and also raising awareness of the serious effects of using psychological methods to control and subdue people.
Smith, C S 2008, ‘Welcome to “the disco”’, The Guardian, 19 June, retrieved 22 September 2014, <http://www.theguardian.com/world/2008/jun/19/usa.guantanamo>.
This online article provided information on how prisoners are still being treated today by American soldiers. I used it to raise awareness with a reliable source of what still goes on, and the deep trauma inflicted on those who are forced to endure psychological, in particular music, torture.
United States Bureau of Justice Statistics 2012, ‘Total U.S. correctional population declined in 2012 for fourth year’, (NCJ 243936, Bureau of Justice Statistics, retrieved 16 September 2014, <http://www.bjs.gov/content/pub/press/cpus12pr.cfm>.
This web page helped me give the reader an idea of how large-scale the problem of treatment of prisoners is. I used American statistics because it seemed to fit the context of the piece, being set in California, and wanted to add an element of non-fiction that would shock my readers.
Zimbardo, P 1999, ‘Stanford Prison Experiment’, retrieved 18 September 2014, <http://www.prisonexp.org>.
This website was my primary (and first) avenue of information, and my most relied upon source, giving me an overview of how the whole experiment was set up and constructed. I used it as a point of reference the whole way through.
Zimbardo, P 2008, The Lucifer Effect, Random House, New York.
Zimbarodo’s book helped me to work out which events happened on which day of the experiment (so that I could provide dates at the top of some of my sections and also maintain accuracy). It was also my source for the letter written from a mother to Dr Zimbardo, as well as various other details about the experiment and its participants. Other quotes from Zimbardo and his future wife, Dr Christina Maslach, were also sourced from here.
[i] Croomer, J 2014, ‘Prisoners, prison guards and power perversion’, 21 March, Office Politics, Rolling Alpha, retrieved 16 September 2014, < http://www.rollingalpha.com/2014/03/21/office-politics-prisoners-prison-guards-and-power-perversion/>.
[ii] P Zimbardo, 2008, The Lucifer Effect, Random House, New York, p. 17.
[iii] P Zimbardo, 2008, The Lucifer Effect, Random House, New York, p. 37.
[iv] P Zimbardo, 2008, The Lucifer Effect, Random House, New York, pp. 181, 235.
[vii] Bureau of Labor Statistics 2014, ‘Databases, tables and calculators by subject: CPI inflation calculator’, retrieved 22 September 2014, <http://www.bls.gov/data/inflation_calculator.htm>.
[ix] Quiet Rage: The Stanford Prison Experiment 2004, video recording, Ken Musen and Stanford Instructional Television Network, Stanford.
[x] United States Bureau of Justice Statistics 2012, ‘Total U.S. correctional population declined in 2012 for fourth year’, (NCJ 243936, Bureau of Justice Statistics, retrieved 16 September 2014, <http://www.bjs.gov/content/pub/press/cpus12pr.cfm>.
[xi] Clark, J, Atteberry, J 1998-2014, ‘What are the 10 most prevalent forms of torture and why?’, How Stuff Works, retrieved 22 September 2014, <http://science.howstuffworks.com/five-forms-of-torture.htm>.
[xii] Sherrer, H 1999, ‘Cheaper than lab rats, part II’, Prison Legal News, vol. 10, no. 4, pp. 1-3, retrieved 22 September 2014, <http://www.forejustice.org/write/mental_torture_of_american_prisoners.htm>.
[xiii] Smith, C S 2008, ‘Welcome to “the disco”’, The Guardian, 19 June, retrieved 22 September 2014, <http://www.theguardian.com/world/2008/jun/19/usa.guantanamo>.
[xiv] Smith, C S 2008, ‘Welcome to “the disco”’, The Guardian, 19 June, retrieved 22 September 2014, <http://www.theguardian.com/world/2008/jun/19/usa.guantanamo>.
[xvi] Zimbardo, P 1999, ‘Stanford Prison Experiment’, retrieved 18 September 2014, <http://www.prisonexp.org/psychology/40>.
[xvii] Zimbardo, P 1999, ‘Stanford Prison Experiment’, retrieved 18 September 2014, <http://www.prisonexp.org/psychology/40>.
[xviii] M Shuttleworth, ‘Independent variable’, Explorable.com, retrieved 22 September 2014, <https://explorable.com/independent-variable>.
[xix] R Ratnersar, 2011, ‘The Menace Within’, Stanford Alumni, July/August, retrieved 16 September 2014, <https://alumni.stanford.edu/get/page/magazine/article/?article_id=40741>.
[xx] R Ratnersar, 2011, ‘The Menace Within’, Stanford Alumni, July/August, retrieved 16 September 2014, <https://alumni.stanford.edu/get/page/magazine/article/?article_id=40741>.
[xxi] R Ratnersar, 2011, ‘The Menace Within’, Stanford Alumni, July/August, retrieved 16 September 2014, <https://alumni.stanford.edu/get/page/magazine/article/?article_id=40741>.
[xxii] R Ratnersar, 2011, ‘The Menace Within’, Stanford Alumni, July/August, retrieved 16 September 2014, <https://alumni.stanford.edu/get/page/magazine/article/?article_id=40741>.
[xxiii] R Ratnersar, 2011, ‘The Menace Within’, Stanford Alumni, July/August, retrieved 16 September 2014, <https://alumni.stanford.edu/get/page/magazine/article/?article_id=40741>.
[xxiv] Zimbardo, P 1999, ‘Stanford Prison Experiment’, retrieved 18 September 2014, <http://www.prisonexp.org/psychology/40>.
[xxvi] Zimbardo, P 1999, ‘Stanford Prison Experiment’, retrieved 18 September 2014, <http://www.prisonexp.org/psychology/40>.
[xxvii] Zimbardo, P 2008, The Lucifer Effect, Random House, New York, p. 97.