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The prison experiment begins

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The Stanford Prison Experiment started in August 1971, when Dr. Philip Zimbardo put an ad in a local paper that read, "Male college students needed for psychological study of prison life. $15 per day for 1-2 weeks."
Around 70 young men showed up for the job, and after going through a lengthy screening process, Zimbardo and his crew of graduate students were left with 24 guinea pigs. But these poor kids had no idea what they were getting into, or how signing up for this experiment would change their lives forever, reported Grunge (US).

With funding from the US Office of Naval Research, Zimbardo was interested in studying the effects of prison life and hoped to examine the power dynamic between inmates and guards. And perhaps most importantly, as Zimbardo wrote in his book The Lucifer Effect, he wanted to know if "you put good people in a bad place, do the people triumph or does the place corrupt them?" So to answer these questions, Zimbardo converted the basement of Stanford's Psychology Department building into a makeshift prison.

Zimbardo and his crew converted lab rooms into cells, complete with prison-style doors. They designated the hallway as the "yard," the only place where the prisoners could move outside their cells, and they turned a cramped closet into the "hole," a little dungeon meant for solitary confinement. Zimbardo also installed a camera at the end of the hall so he could watch everything. He even rigged up the cells with sound equipment so he could spy on the prisoners or make announcements if necessary.

But before the experiment could truly begin, Zimbardo had to choose which of the 24 students would serve as inmates and which would be guards. His method for picking sides was incredibly simple. He just flipped a coin — putting it all up to random chance and dividing the group into nine convicts and nine correctional officers, with the six remaining subjects on standby. With the prison ready to go, it was finally time to arrest some crooks.

The experiment truly began when real-life cops "arrested" the students playing prisoners and hauled them into the actual Palo Alto Police Department. Once inside, the kids were treated like actual prisoners. They were booked and fingerprinted and then — oddly enough — they were blindfolded and tossed into a holding cell to await transfer.

Once they arrived at Stanford, things got a lot more awkward. The prisoners were ordered to strip naked before being deloused with a spray. The convicts were then forced to wear dress-like garments without underwear and nylon stockings as hats. Making things worse, every prisoner had a chain locked around one ankle. According to Zimbardo, the effeminate clothing was meant to make the prisoners feel "humiliated" and "emasculated," and the chain was to constantly remind them of "the atmosphere of oppression."

As for the guards, they were given khaki uniforms, cop sunglasses, and actual batons. Even Zimbardo and his crew got into the act. An undergraduate student named David Jaffe played the warden, and Zimbardo acted as the prison superintendent. As the big man in charge, Zimbardo was sometimes called in to take care of situations that got unruly, and as superintendent, he always sided with guards. He even told them that while they couldn't get violent, they could "create a sense of fear in them to some degree."

However, he did give the guards some free rein, encouraging them to make up their own rules. As a result, the guards established 17 guidelines the convicts had to follow. For example, prisoners had to call guards "Mr. Correctional Officer," and they could only refer to themselves by the numbers on their clothing. Not surprisingly, the guards took to their new jobs fairly quickly. Three guards would work eight hours before being replaced, and while they were on duty, they quickly found ways to make the lives of the inmates miserable. For example, they would only let them sleep a few hours before waking them up to the sound of screeching whistles. Groggy and confused, the convicts were then forced to line up and count off (recite their number) or exercise.

As things escalated, the guards would orders convicts to sit on the back of a fellow inmate doing push-ups…or sometimes, a guard would actually step down on a prisoner's back as he was trying to exercise. It was all an attempt to break the inmates' spirit.

But soon, the inmates decided to fight back.

By the second day, some of the prisoners were tired of being treated like, well, prisoners. Hoping to strike a blow for freedom, a few inmates staged a mini-revolution, taking off their stocking caps and removing the numbers from their clothing. Then to drive the point home, they blocked the cell doors with their cots, preventing the guards from getting inside. Naturally, this did not sit well with the three correctional officers on duty, so they sent for reinforcements. And this is where things start getting dark.

In an effort to put down the rebellion, the guards used a fire extinguisher to force the inmates away from the door, allowing the officers to push their way through. The troublesome prisoners were then stripped, and the head rabble-rousers were tossed into the hole. The guards removed the cots, forcing the inmates to sleep on the floor, and they also refused to let the prisoners eat or brush their teeth.

Next, the guards got psychological by turning one of the labs into a "privilege cell." This was a room where model inmates could get their clothes back and sleep on beds again. They were also given food in an attempt to destroy the camaraderie between the prisoners. But then, in an attempt to screw with everyone, the guards kicked the good inmates out of the privilege cell and put some of the rowdy ones inside, a calculated move that caused the other inmates to think these guys were getting nice treatment because they'd become snitches.

In fact, some prisoners did start ratting on fellow inmates…anything to escape the wrath of the guards. These guys were really getting into the swing of things, forcing the prisoners to perform stupid chores like removing thorns from blankets or cleaning toilets by hand. They also would refuse to let prisoners use the restroom, forcing them to do their business in buckets inside the cells. Adding insult to injury, the guards would often refuse to let the prisoners empty these buckets, giving the basement the smell of a sewer.

With all this pressure, it was only a matter of time before someone snapped. The first person to lose his mind was Douglas Korpi, aka Prisoner #8612. Korpi had been one of the ringleaders during the rebellion, and he'd also tried to stage a strike over prison conditions. As a result, Korpi had spent quite a few hours in solitary. Couple that with the harassment being dished out by the guards, and it's no wonder that #8612 started freaking out less than 36 hours into the experiment.

According to Zimbardo, Korpi began screaming and crying, although the doctor and his staff initially thought he was just faking it in an attempt to escape. However, Korpi's mental state only grew worse and worse. He began telling other inmates, "You can't leave. You can't quit." And he later started shouting for a doctor, screaming that he was "burning up inside." Realizing that something was really wrong here, Zimbardo decided to let Korpi leave the experiment, though he told the rest of the inmates that he'd actually been shipped off to a maximum security prison.

In recent years, Korpi — who went on to become a forensic psychologist — has claimed that he faked a nervous breakdown so he could be sent home. "The breakdown I had was a manipulation to get out of that damn experiment," he told SFGate.

Zimbardo, however, doesn't necessarily buy this story, saying, "What's really difficult is to separate out people's justification after the fact from what they were really thinking, feeling, doing during the time."

Regardless of whether or not the meltdown was real, Korpi did admit back in the '80s that he'd never "screamed so much" or "been so upset" in his entire life. "It was an experience of being out of control," he said, "both of the situation and of my feelings."

His real name was Dave Eshelman, but the prisoners called him "John Wayne." Just like the Duke, Eshelman was a big man, standing 6'2", and he was exceptionally good at keeping the prisoners in line. The moment this 18-year-old stepped into the prison, he immediately morphed into the kind of guard you see in the movies. In fact, Eshelman consciously modeled himself after Strother Martin's villainous prison warden from the Paul Newman movie Cool Hand Luke, going so far as to use a Southern accent when speaking to the prisoners.

According to the Los Angeles Times, Eshelman would psych himself up before each shift by standing in front of a mirror and saying, "Son of a b***, I'm going to get you today." Then, drawing from a hazing he'd experienced at his college, he would inflict all sorts of cruel and unusual punishments on the inmates. For example, he would force them to play leapfrog, and since they weren't wearing underwear, this would expose their private parts. He once ordered two prisoners to act as "Frankenstein" and the "Bride of Frankenstein," forcing them to embrace while saying, "I love you." As his final infamous act, Eshelman forced several of the prisoners to act like they were having sex.

Still, he was very much the instigator. The guard goaded the rest of his buddies to acts of cruelty, and no one ever told him to stop. However, Eshelman insists this was all an act. He's not really a bad guy. Instead, as the Saratoga mortgage broker explained to Stanford Magazine, "I set out with a definite plan in mind, to try to force the action, force something to happen, so that the researchers would have something to work with."

So according to Eshelman, he's a hero for helping to expose "the evils inherent in a prison-type environment." But while he can justify his actions, Zimbardo believes Eshelman very much internalized his Cool Hand Luke persona, and while he maybe started off as an actor, he quickly became a genuinely sadistic figure.

Throughout the Stanford Prison Experiment, Zimbardo kept blurring the lines between reality and pretend. For example, he allowed parents to visit their kids, just like they would at a real prison (although Zimbardo had the prisoners clean themselves up before meeting with their loved ones). He brought in a priest who told each of the inmates that they had to hire a lawyer if they wanted to get out of the basement. And he set up a parole board that was so realistic that when the members "denied" an inmate's parole, the young man broke out with a psychosomatic rash.

In fact, five people actually were released due to psychological issues caused by the intense stress, including the unfortunate Prisoner #819. This guy was so messed up that when he broke down crying, Zimbardo allowed him to remove his chain and stocking cap and rest in a room next to the prison. However, the guards weren't going to let this opportunity to pass, and they lined up the remaining inmates, forcing them all to chant in unison, "Prisoner #819 did a bad thing," over and over again, reducing the boy to a blubbering wreck.

Thankfully, Zimbardo freed Prisoner #819 and replaced him with a standby, #416. As you might expect, #416 was horrified when he saw what was happening, and he decided to go on a hunger strike in protest. The officers retaliated by tossing him into the hole for three hours. True, they did offer to let him out if the rest of the prisoners gave up their blankets, but most of the inmates refused to do so.

The experiment had gone off the rails, and the only man who could stop it had lost all perspective. As Zimbardo put it himself, "I had become the superintendent of the Stanford county jail. That was who I was. I'm not the researcher at all." With Zimbardo in so deep, chances were good the experiment would've run its course, and there's no telling how much worse things could've gotten. Fortunately for everyone, Christina Maslach was about to arrive.

Zimbardo's romantic partner (they would later marry), Christina Maslach was an assistant professor at Berkeley, but she'd agreed to help with her boyfriend's experiment. When she arrived at Stanford, she soon encountered a friendly guard, and the two had a nice conversation. However, Maslach was shocked as she watched this pleasant young man interact with the inmates. She described it as "Jekyll and Hyde." The guard had totally switched. He was moving differently, speaking differently, and harassing the prisoners. And as you've probably guessed, this friendly correctional officer was Eshelman — John Wayne.

Things got even worse when Maslach witnessed a group of guards escorting prisoners to the bathroom. The inmates were chained to one another, and each wore a paper bag over his head. Maslach was absolutely appalled, and that night, she confronted Zimbardo.

"I started to scream," Maslach explained, "I started to yell, 'I think it is terrible what you are doing to those boys!" Finally, after a long, nasty battle, Zimbardo came to his senses and realized the experiment had to end.

It was supposed to last two weeks. It had only lasted six days.

Shortly after the experiment concluded, Zimbardo became a celebrity psychologist. The Stanford Prison Experiment was covered by multiple media outlets, and he was even asked to testify before Congress on the topic of prison reform. As a result, Zimbardo's six-day experiment took hold in the popular consciousness, even though researchers still argue about what it all means.

As Zimbardo explained to the BBC, he believes the experiment "is the classic demonstration of the power of situations and systems to overwhelm good intentions of participants and transform ordinary, normal young men into sadistic guards…" Basically, if you give a group of people power and put them in an institution that emphasizes that power, things will get nasty…fast.

However, many people have pointed to flaws in the experiment that might've affected the outcome. For example, many believe that Zimbardo's initial newspaper ad might have attracted certain types of individuals prone to authoritarianism. Wanting to test this out, psychologists Thomas Carnahan and Sam McFarland ran two ads. One asked for people to join a prison experiment, but the second asked for volunteers but didn't mention prison. And as it turns out, the people who responded to the first add tested much higher for aggression and much lower for empathy.

So it's possible the Stanford Prison Experiment attracted people who were naturally more violent. It also exclusively called for young men, which doesn't really represent humanity as a whole. It's also important to note that only about a third of the guards turned into monsters, while some were actually friendly toward the prisoners. If Zimbardo's theory were correct, wouldn't all of the guards have turned into John Wayne?

Perhaps most importantly, Zimbardo was an active participant in the study, instead of an observer, and he actively encouraged violence and brutality. The dresses, the blindfolds, and the chains were all his ideas, and none of these items actually feature in modern-day prisons. It's possible that Zimbardo had created such a ruthless atmosphere that the guards were rising to meet his expectations. Conversely, when psychologists Stephen Reicher and Alexander Haslam conducted a similar experiment in 2001, they remained observers, and the guards never got anywhere near as aggressive as John Wayne and his cohorts.

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