Abu Ghraib and the Stanford Prison Experiment

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During the war on terror and in Iraq the United States was found to have committed numerous atrocities against Iraqi prisoners of war. Many Americans could not believe the headlines, we had trouble comprehending that our soldiers had done such heinous things. In many ways, we were no better than the enemy. As time moved on from 2004 many people began to notice that this scandal was closely related to the infamous Stanford Prison Experiment, conducted by Philip Zimbardo in 1971. In both cases, prison inmates met cruel and unusual punishment from the prison guards who were in charge of them. Now we must think, what drove these people to commit these atrocious acts. In regards to Abu Ghraib, the guards of the prison were United States soldiers most of which entrust with our values and to help better a democratic world, yet they embarrassed the United States and we began to question our own values. In the case of Stanford it was a group of college students, for the most part, regular kids, but what confused many is why they treated the ‘inmates” how they did. Abu Ghraib was one of the world’s most notorious and worse prisons, their prisoners were tortured, executed and interrogated weekly.

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Throughout the life of this prison, it is said that 40,000 to 60,000 prisoners had gone through the system. With the fall of middle eastern regimes this prison was transformed. The United States military made this a prison for the sole purpose of extracting information from prisoners (most of which whom were innocent) about weapons of mass destruction. The things that happened to the prisoners were atrocities including numerous tactics that are against international law. Including waterboarding, dog intimidation without a muzzle and numerous sexual acts including sodomy and rape. Prisoners were humiliated, left naked for days and even had human feces spread across their body. Of course, many of the wrongdoings that were committed at Abu Ghraib were not committed during the Stanford Prison Experiment mainly because of situational circumstances. The guards of Abu Ghraib were constantly attacked with more mortar strikes than anywhere else, they were thousands of miles away from home and of course were unhappy with the war. The mechanisms in which they acted although are not similar, with power came unfair and unruly treatment of the helpless.

The Stanford Prison Experiment had many similar results as the soldiers in Iraq in many ways the student prisoners had suffered from many hours of psychological torture. Dave Eshleman one the prison guards had stated that ‘What I first saw those photos, immediately a sense of familiarity struck me because I knew I had been there before. I’d been in this type of situation. I knew what was going on “ in my mind.” He said this because he too made the prisoners wake up and unreasonable times to do physical punishments. They recited roll call in many ways the prisoners began to feel dehumanized. The prisoners were put in smocks with no underwear in order to make them feel like they lost their masculinity and they never spent the night in the same cell. In order to confuse them they were put in strenuous physical positions that harmed them. Professor Philip Zimbardo said ‘As the boredom of their job increased, they began using the prisoners as their playthings, devising ever more humiliating and degrading games for them to play.

Over time, these amusements took a sexual turn, such as having the prisoners simulate sodomy on each other. Once aware of such deviant behavior, I closed down the Stanford prison.” Now we must ask what drove these people to commit such atrocious acts. Zimbardo believes that the line between good and evil is permeable. That everyone has the capability to be a Mother Theresa or Hitler, just depends on the situation. One of the answers may be that both ‘guards” at Abu Ghraib and Stanford received no training in the proper handling or care of prisoners, so therefore the guards believed that in many ways what they were doing was ok. The guards began to put bags over prisoners heads giving them a sense that they were anonymous to the actions that they were performing making them, in turn, feel less guilty. Also, the encouragement from peers and military supervisors helped both guards justify their actions by completing the task as a unit, not feeling alone as a sole perpetrator. As Zimbardo said he believes the divide between good and evil is permeable and the people can be seduced into evil by various factors. Common ways of being seduced to do evil things are the progressions of evil acts once you take a step towards evil no matter how menial the next act can progress to be a little eviler. Eventually, those progressions add up and you become desensitized to the acts. Both sets of people were provided with vague and ambiguous changing rules giving the guards no baseline or consistency. Knowing the prisoners had difficult ways to exit the situation giving guards total control and autonomy leading to maladaptive guard practices.

Although the similarities of the two incidents are daunting, there are factors of situational differences in being in a wartime prisoner and conducting a psychological prison experiment in a college basement. The Iraqi inmates were by far in tougher and real-life conditions, that from day to day their life was on the line. People of all ages and genders in that prison succumbed to physiological and psychological injuries that are beyond repair. The college students did not expect this to happen to them nor did the researchers but the horrors of military prisons are a surreal fact in our modern world. Sadly we cannot monitor all these places we can only rely on the good nature of the few to bring these black sites and prisons to justice.

The largest and most important difference was the way that the guards handled the situation and publicity when it all came to fruition. The Stanford prison guards felt high levels of guilt and remorse for the ways that they prisoners had been treated. Meanwhile the United States soldiers on trial used the war and the situation to justify their heinous acts of inhumanity. Philip Zimbardo the author of the Stanford Prison Experiment commented on Abu Ghraib and the disconcerting similarities said, ‘that unless systemic forces, including poverty, racism and military conditions like those that existed in Abu Ghraib are recognized and changed, imprisonment alone will never eliminate the problem of evil behavior and there will always be a bad apple at the bottom of the barrel,”

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Abu Ghraib and the Stanford Prison Experiment. (2021, Mar 04). Retrieved January 27, 2023 , from

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