In “Prison Violence: Does Brutality Come with the Badge?,” Bruce Goss discusses several experiments and studies geared to exploring guard/inmate interactions, with an emphasis on ascertaining how and why guard abuse is generated. Goss begins by noting how necessary such study is due to the many and documented cases of such abuse. Often it is unreported, a likely consequence of the penal system itself as operating within its own unique environment and governed by realities apart from mainstream social orders. Nonetheless, the known extent of abuse calls for intense research and Goss presents examples of this, with an emphasis in the work on how group mentalities may promote brutality from those in authority.
A great deal of the information presented by Goss is disturbing, certainly in terms of potentials of abuse. In the 1961 Milgram study, for example, in which the electric shocks administered by “teachers” instructing “students” were only simulated, the teachers eagerly “shocked” the students to high degrees, even as it was known that some recipients had heart conditions. Equally unsettling is the remark by Goss after his discussion of the Stanford Prison Experiment (SPE) conducted in 1971, in that, after trauma had been reported by “prisoners” and extreme brutality had been exhibited by some guards, the premature conclusion of the experiment was upsetting to these guards (Goss, 2008, p. 24). Goss discusses the seemingly biased views of Philip Zimbardo, leader of the study, who expressed an intent to validate his belief that cruelty is generated when more power is given to a certain group. That Zimbardo and his assistants actually played roles in the simulation further blurs the integrity, just as Goss finds it interesting that, in his account of the experiment, Zimbardo fails to mention those guards who behaved in a humane way. This issue of integrity in the SPE is then interestingly explored in the BBC experiment challenging its methodology and which, in shifting the SPE construct, came away with less conclusive evidence of brutality as an inevitability when power is so unequal.
All of the studies in Goss’s article, nonetheless, appear to represent extremes of conflict theory, in that the great disparities in power create shifts in the relationships and ideologies of the distinct groups. The theory typically applies to social concerns in a broader sense, yet these more focused and more extreme power distributions only offer a “heightened reality” of the theory in practice. In conflict theory, the usual barometer of the inequality is in economic opportunity, as the stratification of an unequal society promotes increasing differences in means and opportunity. This cannot occur, however, without there being an effort on the part of the privileged to maintain and increase their advantages. Consequently, the studies illustrate the same principles, only with authority in place of greater wealth.
At the same time, it seems to me personally that these approaches are to some degree inherently invalid, and simply because the factor of the prison or absolute control within the simulations is paramount. There is good reason to investigate if a group mentality encourages a propensity to “evil” or brutality, particularly when power is unequal. These studies, however, and including that set apart from a prison scenario, rely on degrees of power at least in part influenced by the others as deserving of punishment.
This seems to me to be a critical element not sufficiently addressed or addressed inappropriately, as in the SPE’s recruitment of volunteers employing the aspect of the prison to entice participants. It may well be that humans are unfortunately prone to brutality under circumstances of authority, and influenced by “herd” mentalities. To assess this through the distinct and inherently biased lens of the prison, however, is to enable relevant and likely more extreme biases, and because the penal component itself must generate a more severe response.
Gross, B. (2008). “Prison Violence: Does Brutality Come with the Badge?” The Forensic Examiner, 21-27. Retrieved from http://www.theforensicexaminer.com/archive/winter08/6/