IMPACT OF INCARCERATION ON PRISON GUARDS
Have you heard of an experiment conducted in Stanford University best known as “Obedience Experiment” in 1971 where a psychologist (Philip Zimbardo) wanted to investigate the impact of prison work on human behavior? Well, there was such a research made.
In said experiment, researchers organized a mock detention facility at the basement of Stanford University’s psychology department and organized a group composed of 24 students to play the roles as prisoners and guards. The group was selected from a bigger list because of their clean record—no mischief background, psychologically and physically fit.
The experiment would be conducted in a two week period and each participant will receive $15 a day.
The mock prison simulated the exact environment of a detention facility—the size, the climate, the condition. The participants were then randomly assigned into two—the prisoner group and guard group. Those assigned as prisoners were to remain “imprisoned” for 24 hours a day while those who were designated as guards were given work assignments in three eight-hour shifts. The guards were allowed to leave the area until their next shift. CCTV and microphones were installed to record and observe the behavior of prisoners and guards.
The Stanford experiment was expected to be completed in two weeks but it was terminated in just six days. Something went wrong which if pursued might damaged the behavior of participants irreversibly. Those playing the roles of guards became rude and abusive; and those who assumed as prisoners showed signs of extreme stress and anxiety.
The experiment further revealed that “while the prisoners and guards were allowed to interact in any way they wanted, the interactions were generally hostile or even dehumanizing. The guards began to behave in ways there were aggressive and abusive toward the prisoners, while the prisoners became passive and depressed. Five of the prisoners began to experience such severe negative emotions, including crying and acute anxiety, that they had to be released from the study early….even the researchers themselves began to lose sight of the reality of the situation. The research team leader—psychologist Zimbardo—who acted as the prison administrator, overlooked the abusive behavior of the prison guards and the emotional deterioration of inmates, until a graduate student (Christina Maslash) voiced objections to the conditions in the simulated prison and the morality of continuing the experiment.”
The study categorically demonstrated what has been a regular feature of any prison environment, that incarceration is a powerful factor in a situation that can alter human behavior. It has been noted that “Because the guards were placed in a position of power, they began to behave in ways they would not normally act in their everyday lives or in other situations. The prisoners, (on the other hand) placed in a situation where they had no real control, became passive and depressed.”
While the experiment failed to reached its final conclusion, and was even criticized for neglecting to mimic all of the environmental and situational variables of a real prison life, it gave an initial understanding on how the situation can influence human behavior.
My point in sharing this piece of educational exercise is for prison workers to know what is behind our work environment, the unspeakable and at times invisible forces that influence manners and deeds, so that objectivity will not be lost, neutral disposition will remain as it is and our minds will be enriched with the thought that prison—our work place—is not a training ground for cruelty but a space to express commitment and understanding on the frailty of the incarcerated humanity.
As we gain confidence in strengthening the resolve to be firm and just in prison administration, in turn we are fortified with wisdom and maturity. No other branch of government service can offer that much advantage.