Zimbardo has a masters and PhD from Yale and taught at Yale, NYU, Columbia, and then began his long term career at Stanford in 1968 where he was tenured. Zimbardo was the president of the Western Psychological Association twice, and the president of the American Psychological Association. Today he’s alive and 78 years old.
Zimbardo advertised in a local newspaper for volunteers to participate in a study on the psychological effects of prisons.He pre-screened volunteers for psychological problems, medical disabilities, and histories of crime and drug abuse.Prisoners were unaware of when the study would begin and the guards were given no specific guidelines.
The experiment was to last two weeks and take place in the basement of the psychology building at Stanford, which they turned into a mock prison.Cells were equipped with hidden recording devices and cameras to document and had no windows or clocks to keep time which caused some time-distorting experiences.
Zimbardo split up the volunteers into groups of prisoners and guards. The guards were only told to keep order in the prison. They dressed professionally with identical uniforms, aviators, whistles and they carried night sticks and prisoners had no idea when the experiment was going to begin.
Volunteers were randomly arrested on the street for various crimes and upon arrival to the prison they were stripped, searched and their heads were shaved which was humiliating and on top of that they were left on holding cells for hours blindfolded with no idea of what was happening. From that point on prisoners were only referred to by their identification number.
Prior to prisoners becoming distressed, they did not take the guards seriously which caused a great deal of confrontations.Guards used physical punishments, like push ups, to prove their authority and woke the prisoners the first night blowing whistles.
Prisoners were shocked and humiliated from the arrestsThey lost a sense of self from the changes in their appearance and being called by a number rather than a name.By mocking the guards they were able to maintain a small sense of who they were, but that hardly lasted because the guards enforced their roles right away.
On the second day a rebellion broke out. Prisoners removed their uniforms and pushed their bed against the cell doors to lock themselves in. Guards responded by calling for backup and spraying fire extinguishers in the cells and then placing them in solitary confinement. Zimbardo and other psychologists were shocked at how the guards behaved.
About 36 hours into the experiment this prisoner began suffering from emotional disturbances, uncontrollable crying and rage, but everyone was so involved in their role by this point they believed he was conning them into releasing him.They offered for him to be an informant in exchange for protection from the guards, and when he went back to his cell to think about it he told others “You can’t leave. You can’t quit.” and began to scream and rage until they finally released him.
Rumors began circulating that the released prisoner was going to help the rest of the prisoners escape. Although they were only rumors and nothing ever came of it, prisoners were punished for even considering such a thing. Prisoners were forced to clean toilet bowls with their bare hands and do push ups and jumping jacks for hours.
Zimbardo was completely taken over by the role of prison superintendent and lost sight of his real role as a research psychologist. A colleague approached him as he waited for the rumored prison break and asked what the independent variable was in his research and Zimbardo got very angry because he had this prison break to worry about.
As part of the experiment, a priest came into the mock prison to interview the prisoners, and ask questions about their plans to get out of prison, to which everyone responded they would need to hire lawyers and have court hearings. It was evident how far into the roles of prisoners the volunteers were, including Professor Zimbardos role of prison superintendent. When one prisoner, #819, refused to see the priest because he wanted to see a doctor and was not eating, the rest of the prisoners began chanting, “Prisoner 819 did a bad thing!”.
Zimbardo rushed to his cell and suggested they leave, and when 819 stated he wanted to stay and show he could be a good prisone. Zimbardo then referred to the prisoner by his real name and admitted he himself was just a psychologist and Zimbardo said the boy looked up at him like a small child realizing he just had a nightmare and they left the prison together.
Video tapes revealed that the guards’ abuse was escalating at night when they thought no researchers were watching. One prisoner developed a psychosomatic rash on his body, others were constantly having breakdowns, they withdrew and became isolated. Guards were acting sadistically and everyone involved had lost sight of reality entirely.
All guards and prisoners, including those released early came together on the last day for a debriefing session. They talked about moral alternatives so that in future real life situations everyone would be able to avoid the behaviors they resorted to. All the prisoners were happy the study was over, but some of the guards expressed that they were unhappy with the abrupt ending.
At attempted escape at San Quentin resulted in torture and murder.A riot at New York’s Attica Prison broke out. Prisoners held guards hostage and demanded to be treated like humans, and this, too ended with guards and prisoners being killed.
Mental Illness to this day plagues prisons all over the world affecting murderers who were mentally ill to begin with, and then affecting non-violent drug offenders, and wrongfully accused inmates.