Abu Ghraib: The Real Stanford Prison Experiment

Extended commentary by Peter Kinderman.

The pictures above and below were taken at Abu Ghraib Prison in Iraq during 2003-2004 and outline how some of the prisoners were mistreated by US military personnel.

The Stanford Prison Experiment (1971) was a psychological experiment conducted by Professor Philip Zimbardo, whereby he wanted to observe the psychological effects of being a prisoner / prison guard. This study is famous for the highly unethical methodology which involved the ‘prison guards’ essentially subjecting the ‘prisoners’ to psychological torture – which was encouraged by Zimbardo as the experimenter.

The experiment was stopped after only 6 days, and some people have attributed the extreme role playing by the ‘prison guards’ as being caused by the situation and the power of authority, rather than the individual personalities of the participants playing the guards.

During the time of the Iraq war (specificimageally 2003-2004), US Military personnel committed crimes of rape, sexual abuse, physical abuse, torture, sodomy and murder against the prisoners at Abu Ghraib Prison.

There are several reports of rape by US soldiers of the prisoners, and some accounts where other soldiers took photos. There are also accounts of sexual abuse using various objects, and many accounts of torture including strappado hanging.

Additionally, the New York Times reported in 2005, further cases of abuse including;

  • Urinating on detainees
  • Jumping on a detainees already injured leg, so forcefully that it was unable to heal properly afterwards
  • Pouring phosphoric acid on detainees
  • Sodomization of detainees with a baton
  • Typing rope to detainees legs or genitals and dragging them across the floor.

17 soldiers and officers were removed from duty, and 11 soldiers were charged with offences including, battery, dereliction of duty, maltreatment and aggravated assault. Other personnel were dishonourably discharged from duty, sent to military prison, repremanded for dereliction of duty or demoted.

Zimbardo was an expert witness at the Abu Ghraib trials presumably due to his involvement in the Stanford Prison Experiment, which has some similarities to the abuse of power seen at Abu Ghraib Prison.

Could it be argued that it was the situation that caused the US army to act in such a way, or do you think it was a personality trait of the soldiers involved?

To see footage and interviews with the participants in Zimbardos Stanford Prison experiment click here.

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