"We speak out for accountability when injustice occurs... "

© All Rights Reserved.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Quiet Rage - The psychologically crippling effects of imprisonment on both jailers and the jailed


The Stanford Experiment

--Philip G. Zimbardo

What happens when you put good people in an evil place? Does humanity win over evil, or does evil triumph? These are some of the questions we posed in this dramatic simulation of prison life conducted in the summer of 1971 at Stanford University. 

How we went about testing these questions and what we found may astound you. Our planned two-week investigation into the psychology of prison life had to be ended prematurely after only six days because of what the situation was doing to the college students who participated. In only a few days, our guards became sadistic and our prisoners became depressed and showed signs of extreme stress. Please join me on a slide tour describing this experiment and uncovering what it tells us about the nature of human nature.

The Stanford 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" guy 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.
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.
 (Dr. Zimbardo's experiment) 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 pretense 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... that if you put "normal" people in a psychologically unhealthy environment like a prison or a jail, (both inmate and guard) 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....  

To Read the Entire Article Click on the Link Below:


The Stanford Prison Experiment: Still powerful after all these years

"Twenty-four male, college students, found to have no previous psychological problems, were selected for the study and then, by flip of a coin, assigned to be either prisoners or guards. After a relatively playful first day of settling into their roles, the prisoners became cagey and insolent and the guards became controlling and sadistic." Nikhil Swaminathan

"I was sick to my stomach. When it's happening to you, it doesn't feel heroic; it feels real scary. It feels like you are a deviant". - Professor Christina Maslach, UC-Berkeley, to psychologists
gathered in Toronto, Aug. 12, 1996  

...ordinary people ­ middle-class college students ­ can do things they would have never believed they were capable of doing. It seemed to say, as Hannah Arendt said of Adolf Eichmann, that normal people can take ghastly actions...

Zimbardo and Maslach say they feel an ongoing responsibility to communicate about and apply the research beyond the academic world, which is why they generally agree to do interviews about it. 

The experiment has not, however, brought about the changes in prisons or even in guard training programs that he would have liked. 
In fact, prisons have been radically transformed in the United States in the last 25 years to make them  LESS humane, 
Haney told the Toronto symposium audience. Voters have increasingly voted for politicians who take a tough public stance in favor of prisons as places for punishment, rather than for reforming social deviants. 
 Long, indeterminate sentences are part of the new trend in policy, he said, as are an increasing number of prisons, like California's Pelican Bay, that put prisoners in long-term isolation. 
In Zimbardo's view, prisons are "failed social-political experiments" that continue to bring out the worst in relations between people "because the public is indifferent to what takes place in secret there, and politicians use them, fill them up as much as they can, to demonstrate only that they are tough on crime. . . . 
"They (jails and prisons) are as bad for the guards as they are for prisoners in terms of their destructive impact on self-esteem, sense of justice and human compassion." 

View the Stanford Experiment on YouTube:

Prison Watch of Idaho welcomes and encourages comments on this article:


  1. The Idaho Correctional Center is a prime example of a few sadistic guards standing by, doing nothing as they watched inmates being beaten to a pulp. And even though a lawsuit was filed by the ACLU and even though the warden and his assistant were replaced the sadism still continues in the actions of a few of the guards who are relentless in their subtle cruelty to the inmates.

    It must be admitted that there are quite a few guards in ICC who actually exhibit kindness and respect towards the inmates. But this doesn't negate the fact that there are some sadistic guards who continue in their cruelty towards the inmates.

    I've heard guards laughing because as one said, "the inmates irritate me so when they ask me if I'll do something for them, I'll NOT do it just to make them mad." This guard is a prime example of using subtle tactics to inflict aggravation. This same guard went on and on about what he did to aggravate the inmates purposefully because they "annoyed" him.

    Inmates have complained, written grievances, etc about their treatment by these guards but their pleas go unheeded. Why doesn't ICC, the Warden, the Sergeant or Captain care? Obviously it's because they are just as sadistic, unfeeling and uncaring as the guards they oversee. Otherwise they would correct the behaviors of their employees.

    American prisons are no better than the gulag only they've become a lot more subtle in their "torturous techniques".

  2. This is a good article and I want to thank you for posting things like this. I think it's time that people who live in Idaho wake up and see what is going on and maybe start to care about it. People are sent to prison AS a punishment and not to be punished by the guards, the warden or anyone in the system. I have a son in ICC who says that there is a woman guard that is always causing trouble for the inmates. I wonder if ICC monitors it's employees behaviors. It should. There may be less lawsuits.

  3. I agree. Thank you Prison Watch for posting such great articles. I think we should make copies of this and send it to judges and prosecutors here in Idaho. Like the article said, "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."

    It's way past time that Idaho's judges stop sentencing people to such long sentences in prison. Surely there are alternatives.

  4. So good to see that someone outside of the prison system in Idaho can see what the guards are doing to the inmates. Now we have to convince IDOC to assume more control over ICC which is a private prison for profit. ICC is not in the business of insuring an inmates well-being. They are in the business for profit! Sickening. Those reading this need to write letters of outrage to the Warden of ICC and to IDOC.

  5. Wasn't it the guards who stood by and watched while inmates at the Idaho Correctional Center were being badly beaten, even the Warden had some kind of part in ignoring what was happening didn't he?... I've heard that some of the guards who were named in the ACLU lawsuit are still working in that prison. Does anyone know if this is true?

  6. I heard about this study years ago. Now it has a very personal meaning. My child is incarcerated in the private prison near Boise. I worry about him constantly because of the reports of violence and the actions of some of the guards. Thanks for posting information. For some of us it's the only news we can get out of that prison besides phones calls that are being monitored. My son is afraid to say anything for fear of retribution like being moved to a bad unit, being thrown in the hole, things like that. It's nice that they have a sounding board through this website. Thank you so much from a concerned mother.

  7. Prison Watch of IdahoMay 16, 2010 at 5:46 PM

    Yes, the ACLU lawsuit stated that inmates were beaten badly while guards watched.

    In answer to your question about the guards named in the lawsuit still working in ICC...It is true.

    If you have concerns or questions you can write to Mr. Will Fruehling of IDOC. He investigates complaints against any ICC personnel who may be acting inappropriately or in violation of an inmates rights. His address is posted on the sidebar of this page.

  8. This explains why many of the guards who, when first hired, are kind, respectful and treat the inmates and their families like human beings...then, after awhile, they begin to morph - becoming rude, detached unfeeling and often vicious, as demonstrated by the guards at ICC who stood by as inmates were ruthlessly beaten.

    Why Doesn't IDOC or ICC "debrief" so to speak, the guards periodically and give them psychological and mental counseling and make it a requirement?

    Obviously many of the guards in our Idaho prisons are an example of what one can become in an insane environment as this story has demonstrated. The guards and their superiors may welcome some psychological help.

    But, I have a terrible suspicion that the Wardens encourage their guards, Sergeants and Captains in their horrid behaviors towards the inmates and their families. Look at who is in charge of ICC visitation and see what I'm talking about.

  9. PS I have to add that most of the guards in ICC visitation are kind and respectful towards the inmates and their families. It is the Sargent that acts demeaning and downright rude to the inmate's families. Visiting an inmate is a sad and traumatic experience to begin with but for someone in charge to treat them with such disrespect is unconscionable.

  10. This may be an unpopular opinion but this time of year I feel impressed to thank ICC for being diligent in their care of my husband who is an inmate there. Yes, the food and nutrition is very inadequate, the medical system is very lacking but my husband has been kept safe and placed in a safe unit, his counselor is very kind and helpful and many of the guards there have been very respectful and kind to him.

    I'm remaining anonymous on this because I still fear retaliation from some of those at ICC who like to throw their weight around, and I don't want to bring attention to my husband...but I know he, too, is very thankful that in a terrible situation there are some employees at ICC and IDOC who do care and whose presence there is much appreciated.

    You may not hear this often but thanks to those at ICC and IDOC who truly care about inmates and their well being. There are some of us who realize that your job is not easy but you are appreciated

  11. This is an excellent article that should be required reading for each and every guard and those who train them. It is proof that guards need constant monitoring and should face sanctions against them should them start exhibiting out of control behaviors against inmates.

    One example is that I heard recently that one of the guards in unit H was going from cell to cell removing items which belonged to the inmates, items that were purchased at commissary and legal to have. One of the inmates overheard the guard tell an inmate that he was doing it out of spite, because they had all left their cells open. Behavior like this puts a very bad mark on ICC because it is more than obvious that this rogue guard has no oversight. Maybe we need to call for oversight of guards that are causing such horrible mental torture of inmates.