I would like to begin with the song Jailer by the delectable Asa. I have not been to prison before but I have been to a police station and
even though I have not seen the insides of a cell, I have heard the inmates in there, and it is challenging to differentiate the criminals and the innocents judging from the sounds you hear coming out of there.
This post is not about the deplorable state of Nigerian prisons even though that is a worthy theme. Instead, it is about how correctional officers and jail inmates alike, are influenced and changed by the prison system. Or how any individual can be induced to commit crimes against another individual once the right conditions are set.
Boys of Abu Ghraib
If you have not read or heard about the real-life story of the prison in Abu Ghraib, then I might as well tell you about the Boys of Abu Ghraib, the movie. It was about Jack Farmer, a 22-year-old American man who ships out to Iraq to serve his country as a member of the Army Reserves. The movie is based on true events. The young men arrived, and their captain told them about how they were on the front lines of the fight against terrorism. With time, Jack realised this was not true. To make matters worse, the condition of life at the camp was such that there was no electricity, no interaction with civilisation, no phones: nothing but the dry air and each other's company. The camp itself was nothing but cell blocks, complete with blood stains of inmates waiting to die or drift into oblivion. The story summarises that Jack decided to help himself by volunteering for MP which he hoped would provide a change of scenery and reduce boredom.
He was transferred to what was called a Hard Site which was supposedly the prison for the hardest of terrorists. According to his new boss, the first rule of the place was no compassion. Their job, according to the new boss was essentially softening up the prisoners in a way that left no evidence of maltreatment. Therefore their weapon was humiliation, isolation and deprivation.
The film was based on a true story involving U.S. Army Staff Sergeant Ivan "Chip" Frederick who was accused of heinous crimes of notorious torture in Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison. The evidence against the staff sergeant in his court marshall was enormous, and he would have served a very long time in prison if not for the witness provided by Stanford psychologist, Dr Philip Zimbardo. The good doctor argued that the actions of Frederick should not be viewed as a reflection of his character. Instead, his actions should be seen as a necessary result of the conditions and environment created by higher authorities in the institution he served.Zimbardo's testimony was arguably the reason that Frederick got only eight years. In other words, any person could commit criminal acts under certain environments.
If this is true, then how do we differentiate a criminal from the rest of the crowd? And what exactly makes one person a criminal and the other person law-abiding?
This reminds me of a boy from my hometown. He was not much older than me, but he was bigger than most of his mates. His name was Richie. My mom would often admonish me to avoid bad gangs because they would influence me and turn me bad. I did my best, now look how well I turned out :). Anyway this is about Richie. Apparently he joined a bad crowd, and this culminated in a TV robbery which he participated in at the age of 24 and, he had to go to prison, leaving behind his young wife and baby boy destitute. Apart from his friends, Richie was a very cool boy. He was never in fights. In fact, the only fight he was in, his opponent who was notably smaller than him beat him to a pulp, so he was not a particularly violent person. Then he went to prison.
Have you seen the insides of a Nigerian prison?
I hear the mosquitoes down there were well fed. The cells are overcrowded, and water is not always available in their toilets. Richie came back with a changed complexion. He had a very light complexion, but he returned with a somewhat reddish complexion with scars all over his skin. The last time I saw him, he was withdrawn and very quiet with a mysterious light in his eyes. He soon made a local bar his preferred spot. Barely six months after his return, he was identified as one of three people who robbed the woman that owned the local bar, killed the owner and burned the place down, making it look like a fire accident. Unfortunately, a villager identified him and jungle justice ensued as the crowd gathered to make him talk and identify the other two suspects. Jungle justice is condemnable, but social psychology explains how individuals lose their individuality when they are in a group. Anyway, Richie died with the knowledge of his co-conspirators because he would not give them up even at the point of his death.
So how does prison conditions expose the dark aspects of human psychology?
The Stanford Prison Experiment
In Frederick's court marshal, Zimbardo explained that independent of character, any individual can be induced to commit notorious crimes against another individual or group on individuals such as beating naked prisoners, sleep deprivation, humiliation and others given the right set of circumstances.
It was Zimbardo's opinion that Frederick’s actions, were a predictable outcome of the assignment he had been given. Therefore, it was not sensible to punish the man because his actions were as a result of the external conditions provided by the higher-up and not based on his character. Zimbardo's testimony was based on the results of the Stanford Prison Experiment he conducted and was a part of during the six days that spanned from 14th August to 20th August 1971. The experiment involved setting up a mock prison in the basement of Stanford University's Jordan Hall.
The experiment was intended to push further the research into Situational Behaviour and it was intended to see how much our behaviour is dependent on our external environment. With a grant from the U.S. Office of Naval Research to study the psychology of confinement and the relationship between guards and inmates in a prison setting, Zimbardo went to work. He set up the prison cells by partitioning the basement of the Jordan Hall with several other provisions that made the space suitable for a prison. An advert in a paper helped him recruit male students who he promised to pay $15 daily for participating in a psychological study of life in prison.
He had was able to sift through the applications he had received and carefully selected 24 healthy participants in their twenties with no record of violence, behaviour problems and criminal records. Then he separated them into two groups: correctional officers and inmates. This sounds like a joke, right? Wrong.
Do you remember that guyBradley Bellick from the first four seasons of Prison Break? When I first saw the series, I was amazed at just how thoroughly devious and cunning the guy was. Apart from his uniform, I considered him the person with the
worst criminal tendencies in Fox River Penitentiary.
Anyway as the series progressed, he went from a warder to a prisoner in Panama, then a member of the breakout team which led to his ultimately sacrificing his life to save the rest of the team. So whose side was he really on? Your answer has to be: "It depends.".
So Zimbardo had a meeting with his chosen guards the night before the experiment began and gave them the appropriate orientation. They learned how to conduct themselves in their roles as guards. They were dressed in khaki, wooden batons and sunglasses then organised to work three eight-hour shifts. They had instructions not to abuse the inmates physically. Therefore their sticks and uniforms were to give them an edge and to help them exert authority over the inmates. The inmates, on the other hand, were issued ill-fitting uniformed smocks on which their numbers (not names) were sewn in. They were fingerprinted, and their mug shots were taken by the police. They were shown to their cells with a short chain on their ankles further impressing it upon their minds that they were prisoners. It is important to note that their participation was voluntary and each participant (inmate or guard) was free to walk away from the experiment anytime they wished.
By the time the inmates were transported to their cells and placed three per cell, it had been ensured that the inmates were made subordinate to the guards and it was not hard for the participants to internalize the rules and start acting towards each other accordingly by the end of the first day as if they had been inmates and guards for a long time.
Wikipedia CC0The Stanford Prison Inmates
The first day ended without any event even though some of the inmates were bored and annoyed at the arbitrary treatment they received from the guards. The guards called the inmates by their numbers and made them repeat the numbers to show subordination. They were rude to the inmates and would often bring them out of their cells to search them even though they could not have snuck in any contraband within the time frame they had been there. Penalties included menial tasks like washing the toilets. Soon, more punishments like taking away the mattresses of disobedient inmates, making them sleep on the hard, cold floor. Oh, you thought the guard's power was fake? Nah. But these were ordinary folks who are no different from the inmates. Plus the guards have no incentive for being mean to the inmates. All they needed, apparently was for some form of authority to be bestowed on them then they can unleash the darkness in their hearts.
It took just the noon of the second day for a prisoner (number 8612) to start showing signs of breakdown from the condition he found himself. After refusing to calm down, Zimbardo decided to process him out on "parole". The processing itself was done in a time-consuming fashion to further impress upon the inmates the idea of an all-powerful authority. After being processed out, he was released from the study for his own sake. During this time, the inmates were disobedient due to maltreatment by the guards such that by the end of that day, the guards volunteered to work overtime to subdue the inmates. And they did this without further incentives.
At the end of that day, the clinical staff left and the guards on duty cleared one cell and moved all the inmates into three cells, freeing one cell for "well-behaved" inmates, thereby increasing crowding in the other cells. With time, the broom room was used as solitary confinement for punishing disobedient inmates
By the third day, the inmates began to identify with members of their own group while the guards identified with their fellow guards. It became and US against THEM situation. This is significant when you consider that there were no sides just three days before. About one in three guards developed genuine hatred and sadism against the inmates and continuously invented new and ingenious ways to suppress, punish and make the inmates helpless.
Zimbardo realised that things were getting out of hand when rumour filtered in that the released inmate was planning to return with a small army to execute a jailbreak and free the other inmates. He had to move the inmates upstairs with the plan to tell the man if he did show up, that the experiment had been terminated. The psychologist began to realise how things were getting too dangerous and just how involved he was in it all but he did not stop the experiment. It was not until his girlfriend, a psychologist saw what was going on and was appalled by it that she urged him to end the situation that was building up. It was day four, and some inmates were becoming suicidal, having lost grip with the reality of the situation.
When Zimbardo finally announced the termination of the experiment on the sixth day, the guards were disappointed at having to relinquish their authority and power over the inmates. This kind of makes you think: what is it about human beings that makes them so sadistic and brutal against their fellow human beings when they have the power and authority. Note that before this division into two groups, both groups were the same.
The outcome of this experiment makes you wonder if the distinctions of law-abiding citizens and criminals as established by the society are accurate because it suggests that healthy non-violent individuals can become violent and commit heinous crimes against other individuals without coercion and only little encouragement if the conditions are right. This calls into question the actions of many war criminals in the history of the world. Were Nazi death squad members criminals or were the conditions just right for the crimes they committed?
It is easy to stand in judgement against criminals for their crimes, but it is easier to perform those same crimes if certain conditions are provided. This was the case with the Stanford correctional officers and inmates. There was no difference between a guard and inmates. A distinction was established when guards are elevated to positions of authority and inmates are suppressed to subordination, humiliation and defeat. Under these conditions, both guards and inmates easily forgot their right just to quit and leave the experiment because each party was engrossed in identifying with members of their group and standing together against the forces of the other group. The guards acted with exceptional brutality, in a manner that suggested that they would never be called have to answer for their actions. The prisoners, on the other hand, were willing to put up with appalling abuses of their human rights without demanding to be let go. Instead, they focused on group cohesion against the forces of the opposition.
In spite of all these, one of the most disturbing observations of the experiment was the fact that of the students and other people who witnessed the incarceration of the inmates and the way in which they lived, not one protested these things. Each person saw the inmates and walked away. What does that say about us as human beings? Zimbardo's experiment finds applications in rehabilitation and prison management especially towards preventing or controlling violent revolts in prisons. The research concluded that external conditions, rather than an individual's personality or character, determine how people react under stress and ultimately, how they treat each other. Therefore, the Stanford Prison Experiment has implications that go far beyond prison applications.
- Prison Exp | The Stanford Prison Experiment
- Wikipedia | Stanford Prison Experiment
- Simply Psychology
- The New Yorker | The Real Lesson from the Stanford Prison Experiment