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A Theater of Inquiry and Evil

Times Staff Writer

The guard, eyes hidden behind mirrored sunglasses, scanned the lineup of inmates along the corridor wall, stopping on prisoner No. 416.

“Why don’t you play Frankenstein,” he said. It was a command, not a suggestion.

“2093,” he drawled, turning to another prisoner as a video camera captured every move. “You can be the bride of Frankenstein. You stand over here.”

The inmates wore stocking caps, flip-flops and smocks without underwear. It was the uniform they had been issued the day they were rounded up, stripped naked and locked in the dark basement, three to a cell.

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The prisoners knew this guard as the most oppressive. They called him John Wayne.

He was 18, stood 6 feet 2, had long sideburns and worked the evening shift. A whistle dangled from his neck as he paced the halls.

“I want you to walk over here like Frankenstein and say that you love 2093,” he calmly told 416.

Body swaying, knees locked, arms outstretched, 416 plodded toward his bride.

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“I love you, 2093,” he said.

“Get up close!” another guard barked. “Get up close!”

John Wayne shoved the prisoners together into an embrace.

“I love you, 2093,” the prisoner repeated.

*

In the basement of the psychology building at Stanford University, Philip Zimbardo, a young professor in the department, watched John Wayne with growing interest.

It was August 1971, and the professor’s experiment was spinning into the stuff of social scientist dreams. Clues to the nature of evil seemed to be unfolding before him.

With money left over from an Office of Naval Research grant to study antisocial behavior, he had set up a mock prison and recruited young men to serve as prisoners and guards. The professor convinced the Navy that the study might help improve conditions in its prisons.

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Past attempts to explain prison brutality had focused largely on personality. Prisoners were social misfits; guards were sometimes unstable themselves and prone to violence.

Zimbardo wondered if there was something inherent in the social structure of prison -- powerful guards and powerless inmates -- that could make ordinary people do evil things.

The experiment was to last two weeks.

Three decades later, the Stanford Prison Experiment stands as one of the seminal studies on the psychology of evil.

It is mentioned in nearly every introductory psychology and sociology textbook. “Quiet Rage,” the documentary Zimbardo made about the experiment, is shown in classes across the country.

The work made Zimbardo a psychology star. His study has been frequently paired with another classic experiment on human cruelty conducted by Stanley Milgram at Yale University in the 1960s. That experiment, in which subjects delivered what they believed were increasingly powerful electric shocks to people seated across a barrier, showed a human tendency to obey authority figures, even if it meant inflicting great pain on others.

When the photos of grinning U.S. soldiers, posing with stacks of naked Iraqi inmates at Abu Ghraib prison near Baghdad, recently flashed across television screens, the lessons of the Stanford Prison Experiment were revived once again.

Zimbardo has given dozens of interviews comparing Abu Ghraib to the prison in his experiment: the lack of training of the guards, the gradual escalation of abuse, the lack of accountability.

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“There are so many eerie parallels,” said Zimbardo, now semiretired from Stanford.

Or are there?

Just ask the guards and prisoners three decades later.

Dave Eshleman, now a successful mortgage broker in Saratoga, has lived all these years with the maddening ghost of John Wayne.

He’s not the type to hold a grudge, but he is annoyed that Zimbardo has propagated the idea that his transformation into the sadistic guard John Wayne happened naturally.

“This is not the kind of person I am,” he said.

Douglas Korpi, who was a prisoner in the experiment and later became a prison psychologist, long ago severed all contact with Zimbardo, disgusted with the experiment and the professor’s promotion of it.

“That clever Zimbardo,” Korpi said. “He manages to be everywhere somehow.”

Like most things in life, the truth of those few days in 1971 is a matter of interpretation.

*

It started with an ad in the Palo Alto Times: “Male college students needed for psychological study of prison life.”

The pay: $15 a day.

Zimbardo screened more than 70 applicants to make sure they were stable. The final group of 18 -- plus several alternates -- was randomly split into prisoners and guards.

The day before the prisoners arrived, Zimbardo convened the guards and told them their job was to maintain order without using violence.

“You can create a sense of fear in them to some degree,” he said. “We’re going to take away their individuality in various ways. In general, what this all leads to is a sense of powerlessness. We have total power in this situation and they have none.”

Instructed to create the prison rules, the guards came up with 17. Each guard would be addressed as “Mr. Correctional Officer.” Prisoners would call each other by the numbers sewn on their uniforms. No talking during meals. No references to an experiment.

Zimbardo would play the superintendent.

It wasn’t long before the first signs of strain appeared. On Day 2, Korpi, prisoner No. 8612, was already pleading to leave.

He and his cellmate, No. 1037, ripped the numbers off their smocks and used their beds to barricade their cell shut. The guards sprayed a fire extinguisher through the bars and pushed open the door. They chained the two prisoners together and made them stagger down the hall naked.

By the evening, 8612 seemed to be losing control. John Wayne ordered him into “the hole,” a tiny closet used for solitary confinement.

After being returned to his cell, 8612 began to cry out: “I got to go ... to a doctor ... anything ... I can’t stay in here ... I want out!” His voice rose to a scream. “And I want out now!”

“I mean, God. I mean, Jesus Christ! I’m burning up inside, don’t you know.”

Zimbardo reluctantly let 8612 leave. The other inmates were told that he had been sent to a maximum-security unit.

It was only the beginning.

After a 10-minute prison visit on Day 3, a mother wrote to Zimbardo complaining that her “haggard” inmate son had “not seen the sun for so long.”

“I had not expected anything quite so severe,” she wrote, signing the letter, “Mother of 1037.”

The prisoners were forced to clean toilets with their bare hands, pluck thorns out of blankets that had been dragged through the bushes and defecate in buckets that remained in their cells overnight.

John Wayne grew more perverse, forcing some prisoners to play leapfrog, which caused their smocks to ride up, exposing their genitals.

Once John Wayne asked two inmates to simulate sodomy, although he gave up when they refused. The other guards said nothing.

Before each eight-hour shift, John Wayne stood before a bathroom mirror, smacking a nightstick into his palm. “Son of a bitch, I’m going to get you today,” he muttered, preparing to stride into the cellblock.

His abuse increased even as the inmates stopped resisting. More began to crumble. A few wept. One prisoner, berated at a “parole hearing,” broke out in a rash and was sent home.

*

From behind a black wall at the end of the cellblock, Zimbardo’s graduate students were videotaping the experiment.

“Do you see that?” Zimbardo asked a young visitor. “Come on, look -- it’s amazing stuff.”

A line of inmates, chained together with bags over their heads, marched down the hall, on a circuitous route to the bathroom. John Wayne was cursing out the inmates.

The visitor was Christina Maslach, who had just earned her doctorate under Zimbardo and was dating him.

She had heard about John Wayne, and was horrified to learn that he was the nice young man she had just met in the guards’ break room.

There he was, the same person she had found so pleasant. He now spoke with a Southern accent. He even seemed to move differently.

Unsettled, Maslach tried to ignore Zimbardo’s pleas to watch the drama -- and the way he seemed to enjoy the dehumanization of the prisoners.

“I already saw it!” she shot back.

Maslach, who had just been hired as an assistant professor at UC Berkeley, suddenly felt she no longer knew Zimbardo.

“I think it’s terrible what you are doing to those boys,” she told him.

Zimbardo, absorbed in his role as superintendent, initially defended the study. But the next day -- Day 6 -- the professor called off the experiment.

*

That might have been the end of the Stanford Prison Experiment, but the next day three inmates and three guards at San Quentin State Prison were killed during a revolt and escape attempt. Three weeks later, more than 40 people died at Attica Correctional Facility in upstate New York in a four-day riot over inhumane treatment.

In October 1971, Zimbardo described his study at a congressional hearing: The enormous power of control given to guards can ignite the darker side of human nature.

In the ensuing years, the professor appeared on Phil Donahue’s show “That’s Incredible” and “60 Minutes.” There was a failed deal for a movie starring Leonardo DiCaprio. And there was a German film, “Das Experiment,” which began like the Stanford study but quickly turned into a massacre.

But was the corrupting power of prison actually revealed by those college students?

Eshleman, now 51 and 30 pounds heavier than in his John Wayne days, chuckled slightly.

“I was doing a role,” he explained in his office. “Anybody that knows me, if they had seen me do this shtick, they would have just laughed at me.”

He explained that he had been acting to help Zimbardo get results. That first night on the job, as he watched the prisoners through the bars, he was struck that everybody was treating the study like summer camp.

“I was going to make something happen in this experiment,” he recalled. “That would be a good thing because it would help show the evils inherent in a prison-type environment.”

He had played the lead in high school musicals and knew something about acting. He tried to imagine the “worst S.O.B. guard” he could, settling on the prison captain in the 1967 movie “Cool Hand Luke.”

He got ideas for abuse from the hazing upperclassmen had inflicted on him the previous year when he rushed Lambda Phi Alpha at Chapman College in Orange.

“If I wasn’t pushing the envelope, would we still be talking about this experiment?” he said. “I don’t know.”

Some academics have criticized the study, arguing that the prisoners and guards were simply trying to fulfill Zimbardo’s expectations.

One of the experiment’s most famous abuses -- the placing of bags over the prisoners’ heads -- was an idea hatched by the professor and his team so the illusion of prison would not be broken when inmates were taken to the bathroom outside the “prison” compound.

And it was Carlo Prescott, an ex-convict who had helped inspire the experiment and worked as its chief consultant, who had viciously lambasted one inmate at his mock parole hearing and triggered the much-cited psychosomatic rash.

Korpi, the crazed star of the prison video, says his role has been distorted by Zimbardo.

Korpi said the cruelty of some guards was real: “When you see it in their eyes, it doesn’t matter if they say they were just acting. They were into it.”

But he said he staged the distress of prisoner 8612.

He had just graduated from UC Berkeley and was furious when guards refused to call his girlfriend to deliver the books he needed to study for the graduate school entrance exam.

His screaming was all part of a plan to convince the researchers that he had lost control. They would have to release him.

“If a clinician had seen what I did -- it was obvious, " said Korpi, now 55. “Zimbardo thought I was losing it.”

The professor has heard all the criticisms before.

“What’s really difficult is to separate out people’s justification after the fact from what they were really thinking, feeling, doing during the time,” he said.

Zimbardo said acting was in fact the first step toward becoming a “John Wayne.” By living the part eight hours a day, Eshleman had begun “internalizing his character,” the professor said. “He’s becoming that person.”

In a sense, evil is theater.

The actors in the Stanford experiment have continued to vie for control of the stage long after the performance ended.

In an interview in the 1980s for Zimbardo’s documentary, Korpi did not downplay his apparent freakout.

“I’ve never screamed so much in my life. I’ve never been so upset in my life,” he said in the video. “It was an experience of being out of control -- both of the situation and of my feelings.”

“Maybe I have always had difficulty with the notion of losing control. I wanted to understand myself, so I went into psychology.”

Korpi gave that interview only after Zimbardo agreed to scale back the hysteria scene in the documentary.

“He’s embarrassed that he became like a little kid -- that he cried,” Zimbardo said.

*

Korpi won’t talk to Zimbardo anymore.

“This guy is an entertainer,” Korpi said dismissively.

Zimbardo has, in fact, seemed to be everywhere lately.

Since the Abu Ghraib scandal broke in late April, his prison experiment website, www.prison-exp.org, has gotten 1 million unique hits a week. He has appeared in news articles, on the radio and on television.

“From Bush on down, we’re saying that it’s a few bad apples, it’s isolated,” he said on CNN in late May. “But what’s bad is the barrel.... It’s the barrel of the evil of prisons.”

Married to Maslach, 71-year-old Zimbardo is now working on a book about the study. An official at Maverick Films, the production company co-owned by Madonna, said they were close to sealing a deal for a new script based on the prison experiment.

The U.S. Army has started to use Zimbardo’s documentary to train its prison guards in Iraq.

The images from Abu Ghraib stunned Eshleman, as they did most people.

“They were digging it,” he said of the soldiers. “They were getting off on it.”

But thinking back to his days as a guard, he could understand how the abuse could have escalated.

“As an 18-year-old, you’re so enamored with what you’re maybe getting away with that you just keep pushing it. You want to see where the limits are. How far can you take this thing?”

He never got the chance to find out with John Wayne because the experiment was cut short. “It’s not my favorite role, but it will probably be my most famous,” he said.

He still acts on the side. Last month, at a private retreat in Portola Valley, he appeared in the play “Honeymooners in Vegas,” as a lounge singer.


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