Unlearned Prison Lessons

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"The
guards were escalating their abuse of prisoners in the middle of
the night," says the report, when they thought no one was watching.
"Their boredom had driven them to ever more pornographic and
degrading abuses of power."

Those
sentences aren't from a report on the abuse of prisoners in Iraq.
They're the words of Stanford University psychologist Philip G.
Zimbardo, past-president of the American Psychological Association,
describing what happened during his classic experiment that simulated
prison life in the summer of 1971 at Stanford University.

By
placing a newspaper ad in a local paper, Zimbardo got 70 college
students to apply to be volunteers in a study on the psychology
of prison life. After eliminating candidates with crime records,
drug use or psychological problems, the researchers were left with
24 college students who were, according to testing and observation,
"an average group of healthy, intelligent, middle-class males."

With
a flip of a coin, half the group was assigned to be guards, the
other half to be prisoners. Things ran out of control so quickly
that Zimbardo prematurely ended his planned two-week study after
only six days.

The
guards were outfitted with mirror sun glasses, khaki uniforms, cop
whistles and billy clubs – and given no specific training. "They
were free, within limits, to do whatever they thought was necessary
to maintain law and order in the prison and to command the respect
of the prisoners," explains Zimbardo. "The guards made
up their own set of rules."

The
uniform of each prisoner was a stocking cap made from a woman's
nylon, a foot chain, and a smock-like dress with a prison ID number
on the front and back – and no underpants. "As soon as some
of our prisoners were put in these uniforms," reports Zimbardo,
"they began to walk and sit differently, and to hold themselves
differently – more like a woman than a man."

On
the first day, each prisoner was systematically searched, stripped
naked and sprayed down with an anti-lice disinfectant. On the morning
of the second day, a rebellion broke out, with prisoners tearing
off their ID numbers and stocking caps, cursing the guards and barricading
their cell doors with their beds. The guards responded by shooting
the prisoners with carbon dioxide from a fire extinguisher, breaking
into the cells and again stripping the prisoners naked.

With
each passing day, the guards stepped up their surveillance, harassment
and intimidation, restricting prisoners to solitary confinement,
forcing them to urinate and defecate in buckets, and, responding
to a rumor of an escape plot, chaining the prisoners together and
putting bags over their heads. "After just four or five days,"
reports Zimbardo, "the guards are doing homophobic things to
the prisoners."

In
less than a week, the guards had become so abusive that the experiment
had to be stopped – and this was all a fake, just an experiment
on Stanford's campus, just a matter of play-acting in the psychology
department for a few extra dollars. There were no incoming mortars
to put the guards on edge. No guard had a buddy on the outside who’d
been killed in the previous few days or weeks by someone who looked
a lot like the guys he was now guarding. None of the guards suspected
any of the college prisoners of being part of a gang of international
evil-doers.

The
photos we're now seeing from the Abu Ghraib prison are mirror images
of what happened at Stanford some three decades earlier. In the
campus experiment, the guards "made up their own set of rules."
No checks and balances existed until Zimbardo pulled the plug.

Antonio
Taguba, the army general who first investigated the abuse of Iraqi
prisoners at Abu Ghraib, told the Senate Armed Services Committee
in his recent testimony that the mistreatment resulted from defective
leadership, a "lack of discipline, no training whatsoever and
no supervision."

The
lesson from Stanford is that things run out of control when no one
is in charge. The lesson from Abu Ghraib is that no one was in charge.

President
Bush says the mistreatment was the result of "the wrongdoing
of a few" – just a few bad apples in the barrel who need
some good court-marshalling. Wrong. It's the barrel that's wrong
– the top, the big picture guys who tossed our troops into a hell-hole
in inadequate numbers with no training and no supervision.

May
15, 2004

Ralph
R. Reiland [send him mail]
is a
Pittsburgh Tribune-Review columnist and the B. Kenneth Simon
Professor of Free Enterprise at Robert Morris University.

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