A powerful film about prison and abuse of power | East Villager & Lower East Sider

A powerful film about prison and abuse of power

BY LENORE SKENAZY  |  Looking for a great date-night movie? Run, do not walk, from “The Stanford Prison Experiment.”

But if you want to see something that could change your whole view about good guys and bad guys, get a ticket.

I attended a screening at the Fortune Academy in Harlem, a stately building housing about 100 men and women who have served time. The academy gives its residents a helping hand as they re-enter the world, sometimes after decades in jail.

The movie recreates one of the most infamous psychological experiments in history. It was conducted by Philip Zimbardo, a Bronx-born Stanford professor of psychology, who in 1971 recruited 24 middle-class young men from Palo Alto, California, to live in a mock prison for two weeks. 

The group was randomly divided into “guards” and “prisoners.” The “prisoners” were then arrested by real Palo Alto police who’d agreed to play along, and taken to the jail — actually the basement of the Stanford psych department. There they were fingerprinted, blindfolded and sprayed with “de-lousing” compound (actually deodorant).

They were then issued smocks that looked like dresses along with serial numbers. For their part, the “guards” were given nightsticks and reflective aviator glasses. 

The idea was to dehumanize both groups. Boy did it work.

The movie, starring Billy Crudup as Zimbardo and based on videos and transcripts of the experiment, shows the guards experimenting with their power: “You will call us ‘sir.’ ” 

“Yes, sir.” 

“No, call us ‘Mr. Correctional Officer, sir,’ ” insists one guard, twirling his nightstick menacingly.

In very short order, the guards start insisting on more and more abasement: “I don’t like the way you said ‘Sir.’ Give me 20 pushups. Say it again. No, I still don’t like it. Give me 40 push ups and 40 jumping jacks. I don’t appreciate your attitude. I’m going to have the other prisoners sit on your back while you do your push-ups. What? You can’t do it? Into the hole.”

“The Hole” — actually an unlit closet — served as solitary confinement. Again and again the guards started locking “prisoners” there if they spoke back, or even didn’t finish their breakfast. And watching all this unfold, unseen behind a wall, Zimbardo did nothing to stop the budding tyrants. Not when they marched the prisoners around with bags over their heads. Not when they forced the prisoners to use a pail in the hallway as their toilet. Not when the guards were making the men bend over and simulate raping each other.

And there he was at the Fortune Academy last week, at this strange special screening.

When the lights went on, the audience was introduced to the surprisingly young-looking Zimbardo, now 82, and immediately, their hands went up:

“I was in prison practically all my life and I never had any discussion with a guard,” said one man, disputing the film’s verisimilitude. “You can’t ‘create’ a prison.”

Zimbardo agreed: This was not reality. His intent was to show how even good people can become heartless in a heartless system.

“I read that your study has been criticized,” said another man. “That the guards were actually told to be cruel.”

This criticism isn’t new to the doctor, who insists he told the guards only to “be” guards — leaving the interpretation up to them. 

Zimbardo actually ended up cutting the experiment short after his girlfriend showed up on day six and was appalled. It was only then, Zimbardo told the Fortune Academy crowd, that he realized he had gotten too into his own “role” as prison superintendent.

“I thought it was a brilliant movie,” said Mauer Hernandez, sitting quietly as the audience drifted out. Gray-haired and bifocaled, he’d served 10 years for drug distribution. Not all the guards he encountered were cruel, he said, “But you have a lot of them that kind of grab that stick. It’s like they come from their house to ruin your day.” 

For instance, he said: If a prisoner being released after 30 years bequeaths to a fellow inmate something as simple as a pen, “The guards take it away from you. That pen — it’s the closest thing to being back on the outside, free. But they say, ‘You’re not supposed to have it.’” They take it — and hope — away.

Watching the movie made Hernandez’s legs twitch. He had to force himself to stay. If we all do the same, maybe we, too, will be able to resist the urge to dehumanize if life randomly bequeaths us that power.