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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, May 9, 2004

Blame prisons for brutality

By David T. Johnson

It is difficult to imagine images that would hurt this nation's reputation more than the revelations that Americans in Iraq have tortured, humiliated and degraded Iraqi prisoners.

Army Brig. Gen. Janis Karpinski, who oversaw the prisons where the abuses occurred, says she is "surprised" and "sickened" by what she has seen, and even the State Department admits there has been "devastating fallout and criticism" well beyond the Islamic world.

Events at Abu Ghraib prison could haunt America for decades to come. Unlike Karpinski, however,

I am not surprised to learn about these abuses, because studies show that prisons often produce brutal behavior.

President Bush and other American leaders argue that the abuses, though "abhorrent," were committed by a handful of renegade offenders acting in defiance of U.S. policy. One can only hope that investigations will reveal whether that is true.

In the Bush view, evil people exist — people who are inclined by personality to behave in ways that demean, dehumanize and harm other people. Assemble a large group of people and some percentage among them will want to do wrong.

This, we are told, is what has happened in Iraq.

In addition to Bush's bad-apple theory, two other explanations of the prison abuses are now circulating.

The first, that the loathsome misconduct displays America's true feelings about Iraqi and other Muslim people, seems to be the dominant view in the Middle East and North Africa. Regardless of whether this view is accurate, the perception will prove difficult to defeat. The television images are powerful, and even some of our allies believe they reveal deep truths about American attitudes in Iraq and the world.

The second theory is that war is hell and that people do hellish things in the context of combat. There is ample evidence for this view, too (the My Lai massacre in Vietnam, the Bataan Death March in World War II, the Cambodian killing fields and so on).

However, one of the best-known studies in the history of social science suggests that the critical context at Abu Ghraib may not be war, but prison. The 1971 Stanford Prison Experiment was led by professor Philip G. Zimbardo (see www.prisonexp.org).

The study addressed the question: What happens when you put good people in evil places? The answer reached by Zimbardo and his colleagues (and by many subsequent studies) is that good people will often behave despicably.

Zimbardo used ads to recruit college students to participate in a make-believe prison built in the basement of a Stanford University building. Seventy students answered the ads, from which 24 were chosen to participate, 12 as guards and 12 as inmates.

Diagnostic tests conducted before the experiment revealed that the participants (all male) were healthy, intelligent and psychologically "normal."

On their entry to the "prison," the "inmates" were stripped, searched and deloused in accordance with real prison practice. They were assigned ID numbers. They wore stocking caps to resemble the shaved heads that then prevailed among American inmates. They were placed in small cells and required to perform pushups for "disciplinary violations." And so on.

The "guards" received no serious training. On the second day of the proposed two-week experiment, some of the prisoners rebelled. Their resistance was crushed by the role-playing guards.

A day or two later, one prisoner began to scream and "act crazy." His "deviance" was repressed.

Then there emerged rumors of an inmate plan to escape. The guards responded by escalating their levels of control, harassment and humiliation.

On Day 6, Zimbardo decided to abort the experiment. The prisoners and guards had so deeply internalized their roles that the fictitious prison looked frighteningly real.

Many lessons can be drawn from the Zimbardo experiment and the Abu Ghraib abuses. Let me mention four.

• First, "situations" (such as war and prison) have the power to transform ordinary people into monsters. This is a humbling lesson that suggests we should not claim too much credit for our apparently virtuous acts.

• Second, since situations shape behavior so profoundly, beware of believing that you would have acted differently than the prison guards at Stanford or Abu Ghraib.

• Third, prisons routinely dehumanize people. This is especially the case in the United States, which imprisons about 10 times more people per capita than do most democracies in Western Europe. The American prison complex is not only huge, it fosters treatment of inmates that is unusually and unnecessarily harsh and degrading.

In short, prisons have little capacity to do good (nationwide, more than 60 percent of inmates reoffend within three years of release). And the Stanford and Abu Ghraib cases teach us that prisons have significant capacity to do harm.

• The final lesson: The state of Hawai'i should be cautious about using imprisonment as a criminal sanction. At a time when the impulse to imprison drug offenders may be at an all-time high, this is a lesson that must not be ignored.

David T. Johnson is an associate professor of sociology at the University of Hawai'i-Manoa.