Doing Time

The morning crew arrived together on August 16, 1971. Stepping inside the dark corridor, they noticed that the doors to several prison cells had been barricaded with striped mattresses. The inmates leaning behind them were cursing and taunting the tired night shift. The situation was tense. The previous day had been orderly and quiet. Nothing had indicated this sudden turn of events.

“What the hell is this?” one of the guards asked, taking off his mirrored sunglasses.

“What’s it look like?” came a voice from the office behind him. It was the superintendent. “It’s insubordination... what are you going to do about it?”

“Damn night-shift is too soft,” the guard said and gave a condescending stare at each of the men in the hall. “Now we show them who’s who.”

When reinforcements arrived, the guards forced their way into the first cell by blasting the occupants with the icy cold spray of CO2 fire extinguishers. The mattresses were pushed aside and they came down on the rebels in overwhelming force. There was little resistance and it took only a few minutes before every cell was cleared and the prisoners were led off to separate interrogation rooms, shackled and hooded.

From that day onward, life in the prison became a nightmare. Middle-of-the-night head counts lasted for hours. Beds, clothing, and even toilets became privileges. The inmates lived naked in their filth and under relentless threat of assault. Some called for a priest. Several suffered nervous breakdowns. The guards became inhuman and the inmates dehumanized.

Then on the sixth day, not even halfway through the experiment, the prison suddenly shut down.

The “prison” was actually a basement in a psychology lab, the guards and inmates undergrad volunteers. The results of the Stanford Prison Experiment, bolstering earlier studies, are still being argued today.


Karinann said...

I remember either hearing about this experiment or seeing it re~enacted on a TV show awhile ago. It proves how fragile the human spirit is and how easily it can be broken.

cyurkanin said...

Easily and shocking how quickly too. There have been several recent experiments trying to recreate this, most notably one sponsored by the BBC in 2002 I think. Although they disagree with "reasons" for the changes in the subjects, the results are still the same.

Enbrethiliel said...


I spent an hour reading about the Stanford Prison Experiment last night. (I had heard of it before, but didn't know all the details.) Absolutely sobering.