I made the mistake of watching The Stanford Prison Experiment on Netflix the other night.
This is not a bad film. It’s fairly well portrayed. The set design, the clothing, the music, everything was well done. It’s the subject matter that fucked me up. See, I knew what the Stanford Prison Experiment was. My mistake was not reading more about it or looking at photos taken of the ‘inmates’. I just queued that shit up like it was Stranger Things.
[Oh, but you can bet your ass I’m still pissed off about Bob.]
If you want to see a perfect example of sociopathic tendencies, narcissism, and what happens when authority goes unchecked, The Stanford Prison Experiment will show you. And it will fuck you up.
It starts off with a bunch of young male college students being interviewed to be part of Dr Phillip Zimbardo’s experiment. All of them are doing it for the same reason: they need the money [$15 USD a day, which is about $98 in 2018 money]. You only see one ‘perpetrator’ being arrested by city police. He’s blindfolded on the spot and taken to the fake prison, which was created in the basement of Jordan Hall, Stanford’s psychology building. There he was stripped, searched, and given what looked like a jute ‘dress’ to wear. It had one chest pocket with a number sewn on. He and the other prisoners were also given sock caps that reminded me of women’s knee-high nylon stockings.
Nine prisoners shared three cells, each furnished only with camp beds. The ‘yard’ was the hallway. Across the room was a supply closet labelled ‘The Hole’.
Nine guards were issued khaki uniforms and mirrored aviator sunglasses. Each carried a baton. Three guards were assigned to each eight hour shift, were given a ‘break area’ away from the prison cells, could smoke, and were allowed to go wherever they liked after their ‘shift’ was over.
Immediately the guards began to abuse their power. They woke the prisoners up in the middle of the night for head counts. They made them recite their numbers repeatedly. If they weren’t pleased with the results they made the prisoners do calisthenics, at best. At worst they were thrown in the hole or subjected to dehumanising and demeaning remarks or orders. One prisoner asked for his eyeglasses and was denied. Another prisoner asked for his medicine and was also denied.
One prisoner asked for a cigarette, as it was in their contract that they could have cigarettes at certain times. A guard initially gave him one and helped him light it, only for one particular guard, nicknamed ‘John Wayne’, to take it from him immediately and smoke it himself.
The ‘John Wayne’ guard is the one that made my fists clench the hardest. He fucking lived for making the prisoners’ lives a living hell. He pushed them to their breaking point every chance he got. And he made sure to tell the guards on other shifts “We can do whatever we want and they won’t stop us.” And this actually excited them.
In time the prisoners in one cell barricaded their door. This led the guards to confiscate the mattresses from the other two cells, forcing the inmates to sleep on the floor. Soon they were denied access to proper toilets and forced to evacuate into steel buckets provided for them. Some of the guards agreed to come in on their off-time to help ‘restore order’ and ended up using a fire extinguisher on the barricaded prisoners. They whaled on the inmates with their batons and stripped them down. Two inmates left the experiment early when they exhibited signs of extreme duress.
When each inmate was brought before a ‘parole committee’ on the fifth day he had internalised his role as a prisoner so strongly that he truly believed he was a worthless human being. One of the interviewers, Christina Maslach [a psychology graduate student and Zimbardo’s girlfriend], raised concern over the conditions of the prisoners. She was immediately shut down by Zimbardo in an extremely patronising way. Maslach stormed off and I nearly screamed “LEAVE HIS ASS, GIRL! YOU DESERVE BETTER!”
Okay, yes, I yelled it very softly since my housemates were asleep.
Zimbardo went back to the observation room, where he and a handful of other men had been watching the experiment unfold through audio and video equipment. He watched ‘John Wayne’ force the prisoners to dry-hump each other, then bang on the door of the hold where #416 had been held all day for not eating his breakfast. Finally Zimbardo got up and went to tell the men “The experiment is over.”
‘John Wayne’ looked at him and said, “Does this mean we don’t get paid for the entire two weeks?”
In post-experiment interviews, the ‘prisoners’ explained how they felt during their six days of confinement. In the last scene we see #8612 talking to ‘John Wayne’, who showed no remorse for his actions. The other guards were shocked at what they had become when they let power go to their heads. ‘John Wayne’ [David Eshelman was his real name], said he was conducting his own experiment.
What came over me was not an accident. It was planned. 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. After all, what could they possibly learn from guys sitting around like it was a country club? So I consciously created this persona. I was in all kinds of drama productions in high school and college. It was something I was very familiar with: to take on another personality before you step out on the stage. I was kind of running my own experiment in there, by saying, “How far can I push these things and how much abuse will these people take before they say, ‘knock it off?'” But the other guards didn’t stop me. They seemed to join in. They were taking my lead. Not a single guard said, “I don’t think we should do this.”
The whole film made me flash back to my four days in a psych ward, which I’ll document in another post once I’ve calmed down a little. It also reminded me of the Mother Jones reporter who spent four months as a prison guard in Louisiana, as well as Nellie Bly’s investigation into Blackwell’s Island.
The actor portraying Eshelman/’John Wayne’ made my blood freeze. His complete lack of empathy was typical sociopathic behaviour. When he apologised it was with no empathy. He didn’t care if he had hurt someone else. All he cared about was that he no longer got to be an abusive prick without any consequence.
I had to turn on Gabriel Iglesias after watching that shit. God damn, I love Fluffy. He cleansed my mind of that shit. Bless you, Fluffy. Bless you.