Have you worked in – or been locked up in – prison or jail?
Imagine you are an inmate – or a correctional officer. Consider being arrested, read your rights, booked, finger printed, strip-searched, deloused and then locked behind bars. Would you be compliant, rebel or turn on your fellow inmates?
Think about having a uniform, a billy club and almost unlimited power over those locked up. Would you follow the rules, treat people humanely….or succumb to baser instincts?
The inmate-guard relationship is fraught with control issues, along with a peculiar kind of coexistence. In 1971 Stanford professor Philip Zimbardo decided to conduct research on the psychological dynamics of this relationship. He selected 24 students to participate in an experiment. Each was randomly assigned to be either a correctional officer or an inmate in a simulated prison setting.
The college students participating were middle-class males, healthy and intelligent. The prison was a corridor in the basement of the Stanford Psychology Department building. Cells were created with steel-barred doors. A small closet was “the hole.” There were no windows or clocks. All the participants were videotaped and audio-recorded discretely. Guards conducted random inspections, counts, disruptions of sleep and punishments for infractions. Alliances were formed, some inmates rebelled and guards used divide-and-conquer techniques.
Enough background. Director Kyle Patrick Alvarez, with guidance from Dr. Zimbardo, fictionalized this experiment in “The Stanford Prison Experience” (2015). This film features Billy Crudup (“Almost Famous,” “Stage Beauty”) as Dr. Zimbardo, along with up-and-coming actors Ezra Miller (“The Perks of Being a Wallflower”), Olivia Thirlby (“Juno”), Tye Sheridan, Keir Gilchrist, Michael Angarano and Thomas Mann.
It screened at Sundance in January 2015, receiving critical acclaim with some cautionary notes. It is difficult to see human behavior devolving into cruelty, as happened in the actual 1971 experiment (causing the termination of the 2-week experiment after only 6 days).
Questions arise about group behavior, personal values, and making right (and wrong) choices. Query: what are Dr. Zimbardo’s motives – and the benefits to the study – as he watches the decline of civility in his test subjects? “Lord of the Flies” youngsters – meet your college-age counterparts.
This film is screening not at the New Hope Film Festival (which I’m presently attending) but at The Guild Theater in Albuquerque from July 31 until Tuesday, August 4, 8 pm only. It is rated R (language, intensity). Check out The Guild website for more information, stop by the theater at 3405 Central Avenue NE Albuquerque, NM or call them at (505) 255-1848.
Sources: Prisoner Experiment website, The Prisoner Experiment film website, IMDb, The Guild Cinema website