The Stanford Prison Experiment

If the recreation of an event is destructive, think what the actual event is like.

The Stanford Prison ExperimentThe Stanford Prison Experiment is a film that few people will see, which is both understandable and unfortunate. Based on an attempt to recreate a jail experience at Stanford University in August, 1971, college students who volunteered for $15 a day quickly lost their humanity.

In short, Professor Philip Zimbardo (Billy Crudup) used the basement of the school’s psychology building in order to film the consequences experienced by of young boys acting like prison guards and inmates. While you couldn’t fault the Professor’s intent, he was clearly too naive to fully anticipate the personal destruction that would unfold. Finally overwhelmed with conduct that resembled a training facility for Dachau, Alcatraz or modern day jails that exist in cities like Baltimore, the 12-day project was terminated after 5 days.

Though this film will not last long in local theaters, it really should be required viewing at all colleges, not to mention law schools. What exactly is going on in our jails, and shouldn’t we as a nation care given that the United States houses more prisoners than any other country in the Western World.

I speak with some experience, as I have been regularly visiting inmates around the State of Indiana since beginning as a law school public defender intern in the early 1970s. My clients have ranged from those facing unconscionable high bonds to Gregory Resnover, whom I visited hours before watching him die in the electric chair in 1994. What you see in this 2-hour film summarizes what I and others have seen first-hand for decades, and the system frequently robs both guards and inmates of emotion and decency.

Unfortunately, what this film failed to show was the racial disparity existing in most prison facilities around our country. Today the inmates are overwhelmingly African American while the guards are primarily Caucasian, and it creates a plantation environment thought to have ended in 1865. It is ironic that as we ignore the ramifications of this system, we glorify and praise  a similar plantation environment existing in the National Football League and National Basketball Association where all of the owners are wealthy white men while most of the players are black.

There have been a number of great films focusing on prison life, none more meaningful than the Birdman of Alcatraz (1962), the Coen Brothers’s O Brother, Where Are Thou (2000), Robert Redford’s reforming warden in Brubaker (1980), The Shawshank Redemption (1994) and the unforgettable Cool Hand Luke (1967). As Luke, Paul Newman met the fate of many inmates who challenge authority while failing to understand the consequences of the simple phrase, “What we have here is a failure to communicate.”

Like the Wizard in the Land of Oz, guards and inmates in our prison systems are left hiding behind a curtain. This film focuses on the ugly reality of this tragic experience, and we ignore it at our national peril.