Zimbardo (1973) was fascinated with ascertaining whether the abuse guards in American prisons reported, was due to the bestial personalities of the guards, or if it had more to do with the environment of the prison. He set out and created an experiment and the results of the experiment, shocked the world. He showed what life was like in prison.
The procedure was to study the roles of people in prison situations. Zimbardo took to the basement of the psychology building at Stanford University and converted it into a mock prison, but it contained just about everything a real-life prison would have. He advertised by asking for volunteers to participate in a study of the psychological effects of prison life. Over 70 applicants had responded and signed up to be a part of the experiment and were given personality tests and diagnostic interviews to eliminate candidates with a history of crime or drug abuse, medical disabilities or, psychological problems. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, at the end of 2016, it was estimated that state and federal prisons had 1,505,400 inmates. Though the number is high, the incarceration rate had dropped by 1% since 2015. (Carson, 2016). Zimbardo’s study only consisted of 24 male college students. Those selected were randomly assigned the role of either a guard or prisoner in a simulated prison environment. One of the two reserves dropped out, leaving ten prisoners and 11 guards. In our textbook, CJ2015, it was described back in 1767, that sixteen debtors were all held in a 12-foot by 12-foot room. One debtor died due to suffocation. (Fagin, 2016). Also told in CJ2015, prisons made no attempt to separate women and children from aggressive prisoners. Zimbardo did not go that far and had the guards work in sets of three and the prisoners were held three to each room A solitary confinement cell was created for the prisoners who ‘misbehaved.’
According to the Federal Bureau of Prisons, as of 30 June 2018, the staff consisted of 7,902 African Americans, 806 Asians, 4,432 Hispanics, 460 Native Americans, and 23,048 Whites (Non-Hispanic). All guards were required to dress in khaki uniforms, carry a billy club borrowed from the police, wear a whistle around their neck, and wear special sunglasses that made eye contact with prisoners pretty much impossible. Three guards worked eight hour shifts each and while working, they were ordered to do whatever they thought was vital in order to maintain law and order in prison and to adjure the respect of the prisoners, but physical violence was not allowed. As a Psychologist, Zimbardo observed the behavior of the guards and prisoners, but he also acted as a prison warden.
Not long into the experiment, both the guards and prisoners were adapting to their new roles. The prisoners became acquainted with one another and some became friends. If everyone behaved, the guards would allow them supervised writing time. There, they would get to write to their pen pals and loved ones and take the time to be creative and be free from the claustrophobic rooms. Some guards really took to their new role and began to harass prisoners within in hours of the experiment. At 2:30 A.M. prisoners were awakened from sleep by blasting whistles for the first of many “counts.” The counts served as a way to familiarizing the prisoners with their numbers. More importantly, they provided a regular occasion for the guards to exercise control over the prisoners. The prisoners were taunted with insults and petty orders and were generally dehumanized. One of the guards even stepped on the backs of prisoners while they did push-ups, or they would make other prisoners sit on the backs of fellow prisoners. The prisoners soon adopted prisoner-like behavior too. The Federal Bureau of Prison (FBOP) states that almost 270 adjudicated assaults were recorded in February of 2017.
The first day passed without any incidents, the guards were surprised and utterly unsuspecting of the rebellion that had occurred the morning of the second day. The prisoners ripped off their numbers, removed their stocking caps, and barricaded themselves inside the cells by putting their beds against the door. Three guards who were waiting on stand-by duty came in to help and the night shift guards willingly remained on duty. The guards reacted and took a fire extinguisher, which contains carbon dioxide, and shot a skin-chilling stream and forced the prisoners away from the doors. After the prisoners moved, the guards broke into each of the cells, took the beds out, and stripped the prisoners naked. The prisoners behind the rebellion were placed into solitary confinement. The Attica riot on September 9, 1971, brought prison reforms including changes to public policy and administration. Proposals included: “Allow all inmates, at their own expense, to communicate with anyone they please, Institute realistic rehabilitation programs for all inmates according to their offense and personal needs and Modernize the inmate educational system.” (Slade, 2012)
Zimbardo invited a real prison chaplain to assess how lifelike the prison situation was. When the prisoners and chaplain met, they introduced themselves by their number rather than by their name. The chaplain individually interviewed each prisoner and told them that the only way they would get out was with the help of a lawyer. Jailhouse lawyers is where the prisoner helps themselves or other prisoner with the judicial system. Bounds v. Smith, requires states to provide prisoners with meaningful access to the judicial system, either through legal assistance programs or adequate law libraries. (About the JLM)
Prisoner #819 was talking to the chaplain and cracked. He cried hysterically and completely broke down. The psychologists then removed the chains and advised him to rest in another room away from the prison yard and would bring food and a doctor. While this was taking place, a guard had the other prisoner line up and had them chant, “Prisoner #819 is a bad prisoner. Because of what Prisoner #819 did, my cell is a mess, Mr. Correctional Officer.” When the psychologists realized #819 could hear the prisoners chanting, they went into the room and found #819 sobbing. At this point, the psychologists tried to get him to leave the experiment, but he said he couldn’t leave due to him now being labeled as a bad prisoner. When Zimbardo heard those words he said, “Listen, you are not #819. You are his name, 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.” All at once, he stopped crying and replied, “Okay, let’s go,” as if he wasn’t losing it a minute ago. No more than 36 hours in, Prisoner #8612 started to suffer from disorganized thinking, acute emotional disturbance, rage, and uncontrollable crying. The guards held a meeting where they told #8612 he was weak, but offered him “informant” status, #8612 returned to the other prisoners and said “You can’t leave. You can’t quit.” Soon #8612 “began to act ‘crazy,’ to scream, to curse, to go into a rage that seemed out of control.” At that moment, psychologists knew they had to let him out.
In federal prisons, medical healthcare is important. There are also four levels for medical care. The first level being for healthy inmates and the fourth level is for the inmates who need nursing and therapy every day. Like in medical healthcare, there are four levels of mental healthcare. The first level is the inmates that do not require mental health services and the fourth level is reserved for inmates who need inpatient psychiatric care. David C. Leven stated, “Prisons still emphasize security rather than rehabilitation as though those existing within their walls will not return to society. Most offenders will return in less than three years.” In terms of education, FBOP states, “Inmates who do not have a verified General Educational Development (GED) credential or high school diploma are required to attend an adult literacy program for a minimum of 240 instructional hours or until a GED is achieved, whichever occurs first. Non-English-speaking inmates must take English as a Second Language.”
Christina Maslach, a former Stanford Ph.D., was brought in to conduct interviews with the guards and prisoners. The sight of the prisoners being abused filled her with rage and she object to the experiment. Zimbardo (2008) later noted, “It wasn’t until much later that I realized how far into my prison role I was at that point — that I was thinking like a prison superintendent rather than a research psychologist.” Once the prison experiment was over, Zimbardo interviewed the participants. Here’s an excerpt:
Most of the participants said they had felt involved and committed. The research had felt “real” to them. One guard said, “I was surprised at myself. I made them call each other names and clean the toilets out with their bare hands. I practically considered the prisoners cattle and I kept thinking I had to watch out for them in case they tried something.” Another guard said “Acting authoritatively can be fun. Power can be a great pleasure.” (Zimbardo, 1973)
Zimbardo exposed prison conditions, prisoner abuse, and much more. What left the world stunned was how much this experiment effected normal sane people. The fabricated prison was not on the same level as a real prison, which made people think about the harsh condition and life prisoners live.


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