Professor Ashley Rubin has written an article for The Conversation Canada asking whether the critiques of the Stanford Prison experiment are missing the mark. According to Rubin, while the Stanford Prison Experiment has been widely criticized for its research design and execution, it effectively illustrates the harmful effects prisons have on both prisoners and prison workers.
Her piece discusses the robust prison research that found similar results as the Stanford experiment. Such research highlights negative effects such as high rates of depression, suicide, PTSD and anxiety along with the corruptibility that prisons have on those who live and work inside.
Professor Rubin is an associate professor of Sociology with teaching responsibilities at the UTM campus. Her research interests include the dynamics of penal change, focusing on the introduction of new punishments in America and England from the seventeenth century through the early twentieth century.
An excerpt from the article is posted below.
In news articles, the Stanford experiment has been “debunked” and “exposed as a fraud.” Its findings have been declared “very wrong” and “fake.” It has been further criticized for experimenter interference, faked behaviour from participants and for research design problems, among other things.
These serious critiques have generated much discussion in academic circles and in news articles about what, if anything, we can learn from the experiment.
And yet, as someone who studies prisons, I’m struck by how much the Stanford Prison Experiment got right. A wealth of other research suggests prisons have serious detrimental effects on prisoners and prison workers alike.
What the research says
Living and working in prison is extremely stressful and demoralizing.
Some people are better at repelling these effects than others. Even so, prisoners and prison workers suffer from high rates of depression, anxiety, suicide, PTSD and other devastating conditions. For many prisoners, these conditions continue after prison and can be worsened by the transition into the free world.
Not just prisoners
Prison staff are also affected. The history of American imprisonment is also filled with examples of people with good intentions becoming “corrupted” by the prison.
Pennsylvania’s Eastern State Penitentiary opened in 1829. Progressive Philadelphia penal reformers designed Eastern to be more humane than other prisons, with prisoners’ physical and mental health in mind. They implemented a routine — combining work, education, mentorship and outdoor exercise — to benefit both prisoners and society. Finally, they sought to protect prisoners’ identities so they could reenter society without stigma.
Within five years of the prison’s opening, however, the penal reformers, now prison administrators, had betrayed their humanitarian goals.