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Ugly environment produces plenty of ugly behavior

June 24, 2008

A prison is a dismal place. Its entire physical environment is designed solely for the purpose of human confinement. It is a place where "control" rules.

The roles of the keeper and the kept in a prison setting are learned almost like the actors of a Broadway play, but these characters are influenced more than you might think by their environment. Consider the following.

In 1971 at Stanford University, a psychology professor by the name of Philip Zambardo performed a very interesting experiment. He used 24 college students, paid them $15 a day and divided them into two groups.

One group of students was to play the role of prison guards and the other group would be the prisoners. He set up a mock group of prison cells in the basement of Stanford University.

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The prisoners were actually arrested at their homes, processed in to the mock jail, stripped naked, deloused and assigned prison uniforms, given prison numbers and placed in a mock cell.

The guards, too, were given uniforms, riot batons, whistle and sunglasses to wear.

Some general directions were provided by Zambardo, who played the role of the prison superintendent, but basically, the two groups were on their own to establish their identity in the two roles. There were few established rules.

On the second day of the experiment, the prisoners rebelled, barricaded their cells, tore off their numbers, and created havoc.

The guard group very quickly called for reinforcements, grabbed a fire extinguisher from the wall and shot a steam of carbon dioxide into the cells and tore down the barricade and began to routinely harass the prisoner group. Rebellious leaders were placed in solitary confinement.

One guard, in particular, was referred to as "John Wayne."

After the disturbance, the monitors of the experiment noticed that the guards had a new sense of solidarity. Those behaviors of control, surveillance and aggression were also more obvious.

The prisoners too were becoming more and more paranoid by their predicament and treatment and similar behaviors were manifested as well.

Zambardo concluded there were three types of guards - those who were "tough but fair;" those who were the "good guys" (permissive) and those who were "hostile and oppressive." He further concluded that there were no predictive patterns that could determine the particular behavior type of the individual.

The experiment was ended when the abuses of the guard groups further increased, and the pathological behavior of the prisoners became too much.

What is the relevance of Zambardo's study?

When you examine some of the serious incidents that have occurred down through history in the prison environment, one should pause to consider this environment and the behavior of the actors (the keepers and the kept) behind bars.

Just shortly after Zambardo's study, prison riots in Attica and San Quentin occurred. Many others have occurred since in prisons throughout the world.

Examining some of the similarities in the Stanford study and actual prison situations filled with violence and other abnormal behaviors throughout history should provoke some curiosity about the prison environment.

Glancing at those behaviors of a group of Reservists in the now famous publicized Abu Ghraib incident in Iraq, and other controversial prison incidents, should suggest that a prison environment can influence behaviors in some rather strange ways.

In analyzing the Zambardo experiment and those situations mentioned above, it is obvious that leadership and supervision will be required to take appropriate action when these inappropriate behaviors exhibited themselves behind bars.

However, what is often overlooked and ignored is the fact that leadership and supervision have a direct responsibility to "prevent" these behaviors from happening in the first place.

Reacting to a situation by taking administrative action seems appropriate; however, it's like closing the barn door after the horse has left the barn.

Recognizing and "preventing" these behaviors by getting involved in a helpful way should be the primary role of a good supervisor and leader.

Leaders and supervisors who are proactive and involved can often minimize and eliminate those situations such as Abu Ghraib, Attica, San Quentin and other prison incidents where maladaptive behaviors of guards and prisoners are apt to raise their ugly heads in an ugly environment.

Lloyd "Pete" Waters is a Sharpsburg resident who writes for The Herald-Mail.

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