Facts and Opinions

How Power Is Abused: The Stanford Prison Experiment

“Not all cops are bad.” I think I’ve seen this comment underneath every Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter post calling out the police for their mistreatment of black people. While some may see it as a reminder that there are actually allies on the force, I kind of see it as a way to deter the conversation that we are really trying to focus on; the unjust treatment of black people within the African Diaspora. Once you contribute to a system that was founded on corruption and continuously uses barbaric and brutal force to enforce the law, which too many times results in death…yeah, hate to tell you, but it’s kind of hard to distinguish a so called good cop from the roster of officers that are deemed unfit to serve. A profession that was put in place to ensure the well being of their citizens isn’t doing such a great job, huh? I see peaceful protests in countless cities turn into a potential bloodbath when the police begin to grow agitated. Tear gas is being thrown at the people with no justice, and in turn, resulting in a lack of peace. Rubber bullets are ricocheting off of people’s body parts, leaving scars and bruises as a reminder of the side of history they were on. The people, the ones that are labeled as these dangerous animalistic delinquents, are fighting back against the system that tells society that black people are replaceable and expendable. What do the police expect? Disturb the peace…and you’ll get what you’re asking for. Having your authority challenged doesn’t feel too good, does it officers? You’re not as invincible as you think. You’re no better than anybody else. A badge is not a personality trait, but beating a young woman with a baton when her only weapon is a piece of cardboard is; says a lot about yourself. What are they so afraid of? Is your quota really that important? Do you need more money for your donut fund? Okay, now I’m getting off topic, but honestly! You know exerting an inexplicable amount of force upon an unarmed person, or any person for that matter, is wrong. You know battering and bruising people until their choking on their own blood and spitting out teeth is wrong. You obviously know that murder is wrong…yet, you do it anyways, and are filmed doing it…and you don’t care! I want to strangle the people that insist that this isn’t a race issue. There were predominantly white people protesting the rules put in place on what you can and cannot do during COVID-19 a few weeks ago. A pandemic was being protested! What did you think you all would do…scare the virus away? “Oh, you want a haircut. Well I’m so sorry young white man, let me just magically disappear and stop infecting people. You won.” You’re smart, you already know why nothing happened to them during their protests…you know.

Anyways, it always made me wonder why the police think they are so much better than everyone else; black people to be more specific. The black cops within police precincts probably think that these white cops are their brothers, but little do they know how they really feel about them. Or even worse! They know that their counterparts think little of them, and they play bystander, or think they are superior because of the position of power that they have. Hmmm…position of power, let’s think about this for a second. It makes sense, right? Black people and other minorities don’t have much say, hence the events that are taking place currently. Due to that, cops take advantage of the so called power they have over minorities. The law enforcement privilege is one thing, but if you’re white on top of that, that’s two privileges in one. When placed in this position, your true colors begin to bleed through. Those whose voices are muffled, what will you do exemplify them? So many officers abuse the power that they have, why? Why do people tend to misuse what is given to them?

The Stanford Prison Experiment was a six day long social psychology experiment that began August 14, 1971, and ended…well, six days later on August 20, 1971. The experiment was led by Stanford University Professor Philip Zimbardo. Zimbardo had an idea to examine and expose the source of abusive behavior in the prison system. He converted a basement within the Stanford University psychology building into a mock prison and put out an advertisement asking for volunteers to participate in his plan. Around 75 people responded. These people were then examined through personality testing and diagnostic interviews, and through a careful process of elimination, 24 young men were chosen. These men were considered the most mentally sane and stable…if only they knew what they were getting themselves into. Eventually, a few dropped out of the experiment before it started, leaving 21 participants to be assigned guard or prisoner roles at random. There were ten prisoners, and eleven guards in total. Let the experiment begin. The men assigned as prisoners were hit with a rude awakening on the first day of the experiment. They were forced out of their houses, arrested, taken to an actual police station, fingerprinted, and charged. Blindfolds were put over their eyes as they were transported like cattle to the mock prison Zimbardo and his team designed. They were stripped naked, hosed down, had their personal belongings taken from then, and were locked away in their makeshift cells. They were dressed in prison uniforms, having chains wrapped around their ankles, and only referred to as a number and not their names. Imagine how dehumanizing that is…you’re not Brett, or Ashley, or Imani…you’re Number 34, 56, and 8. Guards however were treated like kings compared to the prisoners. They were given nice, ironed out, clean khaki clothes to wear, and were supplied with whistles, hand cuffs, and billy clubs. They slid sunglasses over their eyes so they would come of even more cold and distant; you can’t look them directly in the eye. Dave Eshelman, one of the guards in the experiment years later in an interview stated that it was like a mask; allowing a person to behave in ways that you wouldn’t if your identity was more apparent. Although no physical violence was allowed, the guards could do whatever they saw fit to the prisoners in terms of punishment.

As soon as the experiment begins, the guards had no problem assimilating into their new roles. They were targeting and harassing the prisoners, taunting them and waking them up out of their sleep; blowing whistles in their ears and screaming obscenities from the top of their lungs. Sounds familiar right? Where have we heard and or seen that before? Anyways, this traumatized the prisoners, and soon they began to mold into the roles that were placed upon them too…but that didn’t last long. They took the rules of the prison quite seriously in the beginning. Some of them even turned their backs on some of the other prisoners if they seemed like they weren’t following instruction. Because the guards had the power to do so, they made the prisoners their own personal puppets. They would give them these asinine tasks to do like marching in place or jumping jacks just because. The power imbalance was apparent, and the guards made no effort to make it even. Let’s compare this to the countless police brutality incidents that we have seen in our communities and on social media, as well as the cases that have not been exposed. These police officer know that no matter what they do, they will be protected, especially if they are white. So what if they abuse their power, no one is going to do anything, right? Well…so they think.

By the second day, the prisoners were already tired of being seen and treated like they weren’t human beings. They rebelled! They ripped off the numbers on their uniforms and pushed their beds against the door, locking themselves in. They were fed up after a day, think about being fed up after 400 years. The guards were stunned by the revolts, so they brought in back up to restrain the cranky prisoners. The guards then started retaliating. They unleashed chilling carbon dioxide of their fire extinguishers, breaking into the prisoners’ cells. They stripped them naked, tormented them, and removed their beds. The most rebellious prisoners was placed in solitary confinement to try and disrupt their solidarity. Some of the more obedient prisoners were granted special privileges, well, as special as special can get in prison. They were able to eat special meals, while the rest of the inmates didn’t even get a chance to eat; they lost that right. The prisoners solely relied on the guards for everything, and the more dependent the inmates became, the more the guards abused their privilege.

Prisoner 8612 was the first person to suffer a mental breakdown, demanding to be freed from the experiment. Eshelman stated that he didn’t think that him and the rest of the guards had that type of authority to make others react in a way like Prisoner 8612; he thought they were faking it or weak. Moving into the third and fourth day, things began to escalate even more. Guards would make prisoners clean toilets with their bare hands. They would mercilessly taunt them, degrade them in front of one another, it was very unusual; the punishments even grew sexual. Through the minds of the guards, they knew that many men had some insecurities when it came to sex, so they wanted to play on those fears. More prisoners began to break down as the experiment progressed; the next victim being Prisoner 819. After breaking down, crying uncontrollably and going into hysterics, the other prisoners were instructed to chant about how bad of a prisoner he was and how because of his actions, everyone else had to suffer. Prisoner 819 could hear all of this, and when psychologists tried to get him to leave he refused because he didn’t want to be labeled as a worse prisoner than he already was considered. Philip Zimbardo had enough, and he could see that the other participants did too. A two week long experiment turned into six days. The guards removed their khakis, their sunglasses, and returned their billy clubs, while the prisoners were able to be human again.

The experiment wasn’t just a means of torture, it was a lesson. Zimbardo in an interview stated that him and his psychologists begged the question of what happens when you take seemingly normal people and put them in a negative place. Does the goodness of humanity overcome the bad place, or does the bad situation influence the people and their thinking? We as human beings can be fickle. When people are given a position of authority, they act in a way that they normally wouldn’t. Why? Because they can! What were the underprivileged going to do? What could they do? In America, black people and people of color are seen just like these prisoners. They aren’t treated like people, but instead of referring to them as a number, they are their skin color, their features, their socioeconomic status, and so many other factors that shouldn’t evoke judgement. The justice system dehumanizes them as soon as they look at them. They aren’t friends, family members, neighbors, teachers, students, mentors, athletes…they’re criminals, thugs, nuisances, and targets. The guards worked together to psychologically humiliate the prisoners because they all had the same privilege, and they didn’t want the prisoners deviating from their role. Those cops do the same thing. When they see others with their uniforms and their badges, they immediately follow a code; they have the upper hand. Zimbardo, acting somewhat as the prison warden, could have stopped the experiment at any given time, but he watched the turmoil go on for six days…he allowed the guards to abuse the prisoners. In a way, Zimbardo was somewhat like the government. We are being treated like degenerates by people with higher authority, and the government is just watching. When the prisoners lashed out and fought back against the experiment and Zimbardo, he let them leave. That’s what we are doing now…we are trying to leave. We are trying to leave a system that was founded on racism and white supremacy. We are trying to leave oppression. We are trying to leave police brutality. We are trying to leave it behind; leave it behind and never return to it. We are trying to leave black women and men dying before their time because they were doing something as innocent as walking down the street at the wrong place at the wrong time…behind. We’ve got to make our voices heard, if not by physically opening up our mouths and speaking, by donating, by signing petitions, by being supportive, by listening, voting people out who perpetuate the system…by being apart of something greater. Opening up my news feed and seeing people coming together, no matter what race, religion, or gender is inspiring; it’s what we need to progress. If we keep going…who knows? We may actually get a chance to see justice prevail.

Sources-

https://www.simplypsychology.org/zimbardo.html

Shout out to @cowgrlmami for the idea behind this article

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