Law in Popular Culture

'The Stanford Prison Experiment' reminds us that fear of incarceration is justified

  • Print.


As Americans, a large portion of our population has spent at least some time incarcerated. Crime, and the resulting ramifications, is something that permeates almost every family in our nation at some point or another. As a criminal defense attorney, I have spent quite a bit of time in jails, prisons, and holding facilities. To say it’s a different environment than the outside is to undersell the impact being incarcerated against one’s will has on the human psyche.

You may have heard of the Stanford Prison Experiment. I was a psychology major (before I switched to philosophy as a result of Statistics I), and the experiment was explained to me in one of my courses—perhaps as part of an ethics class. I do know the ethical implications for those involved stayed with me long after the course was completed.


For those unfamiliar with the experiment, it took place between Aug. 14 and Aug. 20, 1971. It was conducted by psychology professor Philip Zimbardo. Zimbardo recruited students to participate in his makeshift “prison”, acting as either a prisoner or guard. The students were paid $15 per day to take on their respective roles while their actions were observed and recorded. What was originally planned to be a two-week experiment (one funded by the military, according to archived claims from Zimbardo’s website) turned into only six days of research.

Fast-forward almost 45 years. The Stanford Prison Experiment was turned into an eponymous film in 2015 and is currently streaming on Netflix. I stumbled across it as my wife and I were looking for something to pass the time. I noticed the movie’s title and asked her if she had ever heard of the experiment. She had not, so I figured the film could work as a nice backdrop for an (unrequested) impromptu explanation.

To my surprise, the film shut me up. I anticipated a low-quality festival film and nothing more. After all, it definitely wasn’t a new release, yet I had never heard about it. However, the acting was believable, the score was suitable, and the narrative was overall enjoyable. Others have agreed, as it has an 83 percent aggregate score according to Rotten Tomatoes but only a 75 percent audience score. According to an interview with the Mercury News, Zimbardo himself described the film as a “chilling, accurate re-creation of the experiment.”


From a practical perspective, I can only offer limited firsthand and secondhand accounts of actual prison life. I have dealt with the authoritarian aspect of the prison system, but I’ve been blessed to never have an extended stay. My experience has always been as an outsider on the inside: I have to visit incarcerated current and prospective clients, but I’ve always been free to leave (once a guard can make the time to let me out).

I have personally smelled the slight hint of disdain during visits. Sometimes it’s the front desk attendants that treats me negatively until they realize I’m an attorney and not a family visitor. Sometimes it’s the guard who lumps me in the same class as the incarcerated due to my role as a criminal defense attorney. I mostly let it slide off my back, because I know it’s only a temporary inconvenience.

But my clients offer another view of a system that is not temporary at all. It is perpetual. It is inescapable. It is a hopeless situation that consumes all those involved.

Many guards use this to their advantage. They are instructed to keep order, and the means to which they achieve that goal are usually proscribed by a superior. Some guards feel as though they need to exercise enough control over the prisoners to establish a cultural hierarchy, with the guards clearly placed at the top, far above the prisoners and anyone associated with them. From my own experience and those of my clients, this hierarchy is established and maintained to varying degrees based on the methods employed. Some are much more humane than others. All are employed with a specific purpose in mind.


From viewing the film and researching the study itself, it seems that this notion of creating a culture of power within the “prison” was a driving force behind the methods used in the experiment. From what I’ve gathered, Zimbardo initially claimed the sole act of putting his participants in their respective role as prisoner or guard had a dramatic effect on their psyche. As a result, the initial takeaway from the study was that the guards spontaneously became cruel as the experiment went along, supposedly as a direct result of their position in comparison to the prisoners.

However, the legitimacy of those claims has since been criticized. One “prisoner” came forward and admitted to faking his behavior and reactions while in the makeshift prison. It is telling though that he also explained that in reality, the most frightening and “shocking” aspect of the experiment was that he could not leave the jail even if he wanted to, which is the reality many actual inmates fear the most. You don’t get to leave prison. You are simply released when your time comes—if your time comes.

Additionally, others have also questioned the fact that Zimbardo and his team “coached” or pushed those acting as guards to become harsh and aggressive towards the prisoners. Depending on your perception of the experiment’s results, that is a fairly damning accusation. However, one has to remember that Zimbardo was acting as the pseudo-prison’s administrator or superintendent of sorts. He had the ultimate authority, and those beneath him followed his lead.

Zimbardo seems to acknowledge that the study was more of a “demonstration” than a typical “experiment” in the conventional sense. Either way, it’s important to contemplate what the staged circumstances demonstrate about the system they tried to replicate and the mechanisms that can influence it.


History is wrought with examples of individuals abandoning their humanity as a result of their belief in a cause—especially when that cause is led by an authoritarian figure.

If Zimbardo hoped to show that simply placing a person in a specific social role—and nothing else—can completely transform that individual, then his experiment likely failed. There is too long a paper/audio trail to dispute the fact that participants in the experiment were coached and actively tried to adopt their given role for the better good of the study as a whole.

However, those criticizing the experiment based on the recent revelations that some of the participants “played up” their respective roles are missing the point. Those who criticize the study’s validity because of Zimbardo’s influence and impact on the participants behavior don’t understand the real-world correlation.

I’ve personally represented multiple former prison guards and correctional officers. I’ve talked with them in detail. The explanation is always the same: There is a culture everyone is expected to adhere to, and everything comes from the top down. If you buck the trend, it will not go well. Every prison, jail, detention center—whatever you would like to call the facilities—has a head of operations. There is always a boss, and what the boss says goes. People will act differently if they are given the OK. This is especially true when they believe in what they are doing, which some do.

Most people don’t become correctional officers or prison guards for the fun of it. When given an option on employment, most would likely shy away from the prospects of working in a high-stress, high-danger environment where others are apt to distrust them, despise them, and maybe even throw a bit of bodily fluid their way.

Those who do take on the occupation surely don’t do it for the pay. Here in Oklahoma, I recently observed a sign outside a “justice center” advertising starting pay at $12 per hour for county jail guards. Hell, prospects can easily make just as much or more working at 7-Eleven.

I would argue that most individuals who enter this line of work have a predisposition to the occupational demands. They want to be in control. They want to achieve that control, even if they aren’t likely paid appropriately for the hazards they face. If the desire is that strong, it could potentially leave them open to certain suggestions others might offer to better achieve that goal.

People can be put into tough situations on both sides (guard and prisoner). Prison is not supposed to be fun, and it’s not supposed to be enjoyable, but it is supposed to be humane. The idea of humanity is relative to some (see Joe Arpaio, the former sheriff and would-be politician who created a tent city jail and forced inmates to wear pink) even though it shouldn’t be. The Stanford Prison Experiment, and the study it is based on, show what can arise when goal-oriented people are given the OK to act a certain way in order to achieve a certain goal.

The study as a whole can be viewed as a glimpse into the mind of an authoritarian prison administrator. These individuals must lead by example, and they have to promote the correct behavior within their staff. Otherwise, the participants can take on devious traits and inhumane perspectives while working toward a common goal. Our country wants to believe that the prison system as a whole is rehabilitative. We want to believe incarceration is more than simply punishment: that there are “correctional” facilities, that there are “justice centers.” At the end of the day, though, if you aren’t free to leave, it’s a prison. Prisons that are run by people—people with a job to do. Some do it well, and some do it worse. We have to hope that these facilities are run by the right people.

Adam Banner

Adam R. Banner is the founder and lead attorney at the Oklahoma Legal Group, a criminal defense law firm in Oklahoma City. Mr. Banner’s practice focuses solely on state and federal criminal defense. He represents the accused against allegations of sex crimes, violent crimes, drug crimes, and white collar crimes.

The study of law isn’t for everyone, yet its practice and procedure seems to permeate pop culture at an increasing rate. This column is about the intersection of law and pop culture in an attempt to separate the real from the ridiculous.

Give us feedback, share a story tip or update, or report an error.