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Saturday, May 08, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

The roots of brutality in prison: Analysis of a transformation

By The Associated Press and Newsday

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They appear to be mostly ordinary Americans: sons and daughters of small towns, committed parents, a mechanic, a fisherman, a parade volunteer. If found guilty in courts-martial, the Army may append another line to each of their dossiers: tormenter of helpless prisoners.

Can a largely unremarkable assortment of seemingly decent Americans put on uniforms, cross the globe, and somehow descend into leering sadists once inside a sweaty, teeming prison near Baghdad?

Yes, they can, according to researchers who study the psychological dynamics of prisons. And it could happen to many of us if thrust into the same kind of dysfunctional surroundings.

Researchers say the climate of combat, harsh conditions of the prison, cultural chasm between keeper and kept, and possible breakdown in command are all levers that could have tipped some soldiers over the brink.

"I would put it more in terms of opportunity," said Bert Useem, a University of New Mexico sociologist and prison researcher. "Really what you have to explain is not so much the aberrant psychology ... but the fact that they had the opportunity to act on these impulses."

Photographs taken inside U.S.-run Abu Ghraib prison near Baghdad show naked, sometimes hooded Iraqi prisoners forced into humiliating poses by smirking American soldiers. Some prisoners are piled in human heaps. One stands on a box with wires, apparently set to deliver an electric shock, trailing from splayed hands. Another lies on the floor with his neck in a leash held by a female soldier.

Some of these soldiers say they were encouraged by intelligence officers. Others who worked at the prison tell of crowding, scant food and sanitation, little guidance, long and mind-numbing shifts, and defiant rock-throwing prisoners who might be insurgents or violent criminals.

Specialists say the dominating power of guards over prisoners, exercised away from public view, bears an inherent possibility of maltreatment almost anywhere. Guards confront real dangers and obstacles in controlling prisoners. Prisoners are inevitably degraded and devalued, to an extent, by their captivity, making them more likely targets. Guards have legitimate reasons to establish their authority, and the line between bossing and brutalizing can blur.

In a classic experiment at Stanford University in 1971, psychologist Philip Zimbardo recruited 18 young men into a study and assigned some as guards and others as prisoners in a mock prison in a campus basement. The "guards" were assigned eight-hour shifts, but the "prisoners" were confined round-the-clock.

The 14-day experiment ended after only six days because of dehumanizing behavior. In reviewing the taped experiment, Zimbardo realized that the abuses grew worse by the day and seemed more brutal when individual guards thought no one was looking. The guards had grown to feel all-powerful; the prisoners felt sub-human.

Jack Levin, director of Northeastern University's Brudnick Center on Violence, said the experiment replicated what happens during warfare. "In order to kill a member of our own species, people are forced to see the enemy as sub-human," he said. Once this occurs, "it is easier to assault, abuse and humiliate people who you devalue."

He said mob mentality also plays a role. "The fact that others are doing it gives it a stamp of approval," he said. "The individual responsibility is dispersed over the entire group." While excesses are not inevitable, "the literature of social psychology shows ordinary people can become cruel and abusive when given absolute power and authority over others," said Lt. Col. Thomas Kolditz, head of West Point's department of Behavioral Sciences and Leadership.

Obviously, not everyone sinks into the darkness, even in abusive settings. We are not all created equal in this way. A personal history of maltreatment or violence tends to make someone more prone to buckle.

At Abu Ghraib, at least one soldier exposed the atrocities, and others reportedly helped investigators figure out what happened. Researchers say that most civilian and military guards generally respect rules protecting prisoners.

Indeed, some evidence suggests that at least civilian prisons have become safer overall during the past 20 years, with less maltreatment by guards, according to researchers. But they credit organizational changes, more than shifts in the mind-set of guards, for driving the progress.

"To understand the reasons ... for bad behavior by guards, you don't have to imagine that everybody is a sadist," says New York University professor David Garland, a specialist in prison sociology. "The best-run prisons are established institutions that tend to be stable over time, with their own culture. A brand-new prison filled up with new inmates and guards is going to be a tinderbox."

Several experts stressed weak leadership as key in dissolving a guard's inhibitions: the sense that no one is really watching.

The horror and hardships of wartime can further smear the boundaries of human decency in a military-run prison. The captives are not just prisoners; they are the enemy. Sometimes, a soldier will do something as part of a unit that he would never do alone.

"You put bright, healthy, strong young Americans into a very difficult context, and it requires extraordinary strength of character not to get somewhat twisted out of shape," said James Campbell Quick, a professor of organizational behavior at the University of Texas at Arlington and a retired Air Force Reserve colonel. "War is a horrific kind of experience. It is in no way normal or healthy."

Experts on managing prisoners also say cultural differences like those at Abu Ghraib can amplify the potential for conflict with guards.

"The very idea that not only would people do these things, but also take the pictures also says something about the culture" of guards inside the prison, said Ervin Staub, a University of Massachusetts-Amherst psychologist who has trained police and soldiers in dealing sensitively with other groups. "People are not saying, 'We are doing this on the sneak, it's a bad thing to do.' It has already become normal ... to some degree at least."

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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